From: Heri Retnowati, Reuters
Published September 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Mudflow Forces Indonesians to Camp on Highway

SIDOARJO, Indonesia — Hundreds of Indonesian villagers have taken over a major highway after being driven out of their homes by a torrent of muddy water from an oil well, authorities said on Tuesday.

Mats, furniture, motorcycles and other rescued belongings now occupy a stretch of the road in East Java province after the villagers became the latest victims of the foul-smelling mud, which has been flowing out of an exploratory oil well since May.

"Since Sunday, they have blocked the toll road with tyres and we cannot do anything about it," said Bachriansyah, chief operator of the Surabaya-Gempol tollroad, a 45-km (27-mile) highway which has a three-mile section slicing through the mud-affected area. Surabaya is the capital of East Java.

The mudflow has swamped an area larger than Monaco in East Java's Sidoarjo region since May and more than 10,000 people have been displaced.

At least four villages have been submerged in the disaster, which has highlighted the country's chequered environmental record in exploiting resources.

Dykes have been built to try to control the mud but on Sunday the barriers designed to protect the village of Besuki failed, driving about 800 residents to seek refuge on the highway, which connects Surabaya with its industrial suburbs.

Well operator Lapindo Brantas Inc. has moved many of the previously displaced residents to shelters, including a huge new market that has been turned into a complex of wooden cubicles.

But the villagers said they had chosen to camp out on the road so that they could keep an eye on their inundated homes next to the highway.

"I don't want to be moved to the new market. If I go there, Lapindo will fill my house with mud," said Suhandoyo, adding the greenish muddy water in his house was already one-metre (three feet) deep.

Lapindo, which disputes the mud is directly connected with the drilling operation, has hired engineers, including American and Australian experts, to stop the flow of around 50,000 cubic metres (1.75 million cubic feet) of hot muddy water every day.

Police have named nine suspects, all related to the drilling operation, in an environmental pollution probe.

Several experts say the mudflow could have been triggered by a crack about 6,000 feet (1,800 metres) in the well. Another theory is that volcanic activity after the May 27 Java earthquake might also have played a role.

Lapindo is a unit of PT Energi Mega Persada, partly owned by the Bakrie Group, which is controlled by the family of Indonesia's chief social welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie.

Source: Reuters

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