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Ten years ago this Sunday, one of the weirdest and most controversial disasters of the 2000s struck a densely populated area just outside the city of Sidoarjo in East Java, Indonesia. At 5:00 that morning, a slurry of dark gray mud burst from the soil and began oozing slowly across the landscape. Since that day, the flow of mud has never stopped or even paused.
Now, a decade into the eruption, an area of almost three square miles has been buried in mud up to sixty feet deep. At the center of a vast gray mudscape, the volcano continues to spew. More than forty thousand people have lost their houses, businesses, and land, and they can never go home.
In the wake of most volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, or other phenomena that are typically lumped under the contested “natural disaster” label, a tenth anniversary can be a good time to look back at how the recovery and healing happened.
But today seems more like the tenth anniversary of an exceptionally bad marriage. There has been no opportunity to heal, because the mud eruption—a highly unnatural disaster, a human-made tragedy—is still unfolding with no end in sight. And as with many such tragedies, the perpetrators managed to dodge responsibility for years by claiming that the whole thing was perfectly natural.
Stress and fault
The day before the eruption, there was a drilling accident in a natural gas exploration well 160 yards to the east. The prevailing hypothesis is that an insufficiently shielded drill fractured a deep rock formation, triggering a fault slip and allowing boiling-hot groundwater to gush upward through a thick clay formation called the Kalibeng and bring the endless stream of mud to the surface.
Faced with demands to compensate the disaster’s victims, PT Lapindo Brantas, the company that owned the ill-fated drilling rig, has insisted from the beginning that the tragedy was not an accident but rather a “natural disaster.” The eruption’s trigger, Lapindo claims, was actually an earthquake that struck 170 miles away on May 27, two days before the mudflow appeared.
Philip Drake of the University of Kansas has studied the political and economic underbelly of the trigger debate since its early days. According to Drake, all published studies that reject the possibility of a gas-drilling trigger were done by employees of Lapindo or the national mining ministry or people who had links to the mining industry.
Among scientists who are free of such conflicts of interest, one at the University of Oslo has published a scenario that supports the possibility of an earthquake trigger while not ruling out a drilling trigger. But most prominent has been a group of geologists and seismologists scattered across Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Their extensive published analyses, some of which included Lapindo’s own data on pressure changes and gas releases, culminating with a definitive 2015 paper in Nature Geoscience, point unequivocally to the drilling accident as the trigger..
They have further demonstrated that the distant quake exerted a force on the fault that was much weaker than any known to have ever activated a fault; in fact, it was twenty-four to forty-eight times weaker than the jolt delivered by the drilling accident.
Most research papers on both sides of the debate refer to the mud volcano as “Lusi.” This nickname, a contraction of lumpur—the Bahasa word for “mud”—with “Sidoarjo,” is neutral, implying no causal force. But to people living in and around Sidoarjo, the disaster’s unnatural origin has always seemed pretty obvious. They use another, more pointed term: Lumpur Lapindo—Lapindo’s mud.
In the scientific debate over the trigger, the avoidable drilling accident always had the great bulk of the evidence behind it, and the case for its role is now all but sealed. But in the political debate, estimates of subterranean pore pressures and seismic waves carried far less weight than tallies of potential profits and losses. In that world, ears pricked readily to the earthquake trigger’s distant rumble.
The public wrangling over blame and compensation was never a fair fight. Lapindo is controlled by the Bakrie Group, a mammoth conglomerate with extensive connections to the U.S. and world fossil-fuel industries. The owners parlayed their economic clout and closeness to government officials, including then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, into declarations from Indonesia’s House of Representatives and Supreme Court that Lusi was a “natural disaster.”
That allowed the Bakrie Group to keep the dubious earthquake story alive for more than nine years and delay full payment of restitution to the families whose homes, communities, and livelihoods that its mud volcano had permanently buried.
With the 2014 election of populist president Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, the Bakries’ power was severely eroded, and by last year they had finally and reluctantly agreed to finish paying compensation. But the money they would shell out was provided to them by the Jokowi government as a loan, one that many suspect will never be repaid.
Clear as mud
Does it even matter after all these years, and with the question of compensation seemingly settled, who (or what) set off the mudflow? Yes. Lusi is a festering puncture wound of the Anthropocene, insistently reminding us that denial of the human hand in producing natural-looking hazards does nothing to mitigate human-made but natural-looking disasters.
Sidoarjo’s long tragedy also reminds us that our fossil-fuel dependence not only destabilizes the atmosphere and oceans, spinning off unpredictable forces; the very extraction of those fuels from the Earth’s crust also can produce deadly hazards.
And because the destruction is wrought by apparently natural forces, miners and pumpers try, often successfully, to claim innocence. Between 2009 and 2015 in this country, the “natural disaster” claim allowed oil companies in Oklahoma and other states to duck responsibility for damage caused by the numerous earthquakes that they triggered by injecting wastewater into their old wells. (The state’s governor finally admitted last year that the quakes are unnatural and strengthened regulation, but injection and the shaking continue.)
How a society handles a disaster hinges on which story of its origin is accepted as the truth. And that’s where things can get rough. In 1989, Deborah Stone, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, wrote, “Causal stories need to be fought for, defended, and sustained. There is always someone to tell a competing story, and getting a causal story believed is not an easy task.”
The most successful causal stories, Stone argued, are ones that imply “no radical redistribution of power or wealth” and are pushed by those who have prominence, power, and a media presence.
At the time of her article, the climate wars were already building into a globe-spanning, high-stakes contest that followed exactly the dynamic she described. For more than a quarter century since, powerful interests have managed to garner public support for their story of climatic catastrophe’s “natural” causes, despite all evidence to the contrary.
But if there is a clearest illustration of Stone’s thesis, it must be the mudslinging over Lusi’s origin.
It was the wealth and power of the Bakrie empire that kept the highly implausible causal story of the earthquake trigger alive for nine long years. Thus protected, the Bakries and Lapindo were free to turn the flow of the victim-compensation pipeline down to a slow trickle. Meanwhile, the government took on the full cost and physical effort of dealing with the relentless gray tide of mud that continues to threaten the countryside south of Sidoarjo.
As Lusi turns ten, much appears to have been resolved. Science has established that the drilling accident triggered the eruption. The government, through heroic, sometimes desperate efforts, is dealing with the mud. Lapindo has been brought to heel, sort of.
The right causal story prevailed in the end, but far too late to repair the harm done to Lusi’s refugees. As long as the debate was dragging on, they could never fully extricate themselves from Sidoarjo’s barren, gray mudscape. Only now can they begin to move on—on, but never back. The mud, which pays no attention to causal stories, keeps flowing.