PORONG, Indonesia – Mud tourism is about the only thing that is flourishing in Porong, an East Java suburb that two years ago became a disaster zone when hot volcanic mud began spewing from the site of a gas exploration well.
Today, the inland sea of mud is twice the size of Central Park in New York. Enough mud to fill 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools spews out every day and has already displaced 50,000 people, submerged homes, factories and schools.
The local economy has been devastated by the disaster, although, there are a few minor exceptions such as a local pharmacy that has seen sales soar as people seek treatment for allergies. The stench of sulfur hangs in the air from the grey, watery mud, although authorities deny it is a health hazard.
“Business is good,” said a cashier at Porong Pharmacy. Nearby, motorbike taxis charge high prices to drive curious tourists to the towering levees of rock and earth that hold back the mud. Others hawk DVDs of the disaster.
But they are a rarity in a district that has seen its economy swallowed up by the expanding mud lake covering about 6.5 square km (2.5 sq mile). The mud has badly affected communications and transport links between East Java and the key port city of Surabaya.
The whole mess has become a big embarrassment for the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, as energy firm PT Lapindo Brantas, whose drilling is blamed by some top scientists for the disaster, is partly owned by businesses linked to the family of chief social welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie.
Lapindo disputes its drilling caused the disaster, linking it to tectonic activity after a powerful earthquake in Central Java two days before the mud flow started.
Although a team of leading British, American, Indonesian and Australian scientists, writing in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, said they were certain the gas drilling caused the disaster as pressurized fluid fractured the surrounding rock. Mud spurted out of cracks instead of the wellhead.
The government has ordered Lapindo to pay more than $400 million in compensation to the victims and to cover the damage.
Bakrie, Indonesia’s richest man worth over $9 billion according to Globe Magazine, said the firm was not responsible but would still pay compensation and build new housing.
That is little consolation though to businessmen such as Mursidi, whose factories were buried in the mud, and who is yet to receive much help as he struggles to pick up the pieces.
“The office has vanished, the factories have also vanished. So we have to start this business from zero,” said a weary sounding Mursidi, who goes by one name like many Indonesians.
“The biggest impact is on mental recovery. We don’t have any will any more,” added the 43-year-old Mursidi. Out of 96 of his former workers, only 13 remained as the others had scattered since the disaster, he added.
Mud volcanoes occur in other parts of Indonesia as well as in places ranging from China to Italy, but the one in Porong is thought to be world’s biggest, and there appears to be little that can stop it.
Richard Davies, a geologist at Britain’s University of Durham who co-wrote the journal article on the causes of the disaster, has said the mud flow could affect the area for years to come and warned the central part of the volcano was collapsing.
There is simmering anger among those that remain.
On a main street facing the mud area hangs a sign saying: “Put Lapindo on trial! Confiscate Bakrie’s assets!”.
Protests, often involving hundreds of people, break out sporadically amid calls for Lapindo to pay the remaining 80 percent of compensation after an upfront 20 percent payment and to compensate residents in areas newly affected by the mud.
The company is obliged to pay compensation in an area designated under a presidential decree, but responsibility outside this area is murky and some locals have also refused to accept what they regard as derisory compensation.
Yuniwati Teryana, a spokeswoman for Lapindo, said the firm was only obliged to compensate residents but detailed in an email 163 billion rupiah ($18 million) of aid she said the firm had made to businesses and workers affected by the mud.
PT Energi Mega Persada, owned by the Bakrie Group, indirectly controls Lapindo, which holds a 50 percent stake in the Brantas block from where the mud came. PT Medco Energi International Tbk holds a 32 percent stake and Australia-based Santos Ltd the rest.
As well as factories, the mud also destroyed rice paddies and affected shrimp ponds in Sidoarjo regency, famous in Indonesia for its shrimp crackers.
The government has also been left with a huge bill for damage to infrastructure, including the re-routing of a gas pipeline, railways, electricity networks and roads.
Apart from building dykes to try and contain the mud, the mud flow has also been channeled into the nearby Porong River and out to sea, causing sedimentation and alarming environmentalists.
Indonesia’s national planning agency estimated last year the disaster had caused 7.3 trillion rupiah of losses, a figure that could rise to 16.5 trillion rupiah.
Businesses just outside the mud-stricken area have also not been spared.
“It’s been quiet for two years because the buyers moved to God knows where,” said Lenny, a clerk at a local supermarket.