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'Mud volcano' bedevils villages

A drilling accident in Indonesia caused an eruption of hot mud from deep within the Earth. At least 10,000 have fled.

Published September 29, 2006

PORONG, Indonesia - Factories that once produced watches and shoes lie under a sea of thick, stinking mud. Villagers stand on hastily constructed dams and gaze at the thousands of homes swallowed by brown sludge.

Four months ago, a torrent of hot mud from deep beneath the surface of Indonesia's seismically charged Java island began surging from a natural gas exploration site after a drilling accident.

The "mud volcano" pours out about 165,000 cubic yards of mud every day - enough to cover a football field about 75 feet deep. Often spewing out in geyserlike eruptions, the mud has left about 665 acres swamped or abandoned as unsafe, forcing more than 10,000 people from their homes.

Experts say the mud volcano is one of the largest ever recorded on land. Geologists fear the technology may not exist to stop the eruption, saying mud could flow for years or even centuries - or stop on its own at any time.

The mud is believed to come from a reservoir 3½ miles below the surface that has been pressurized by shifts in the crust or by the accumulation of hydrocarbon gases.

Police seized the drilling rig involved in the accident and are investigating whether to bring criminal charges against the principal well owner, PT Lapindo Brantas.

Lapindo, which is linked to the wealthy family of Indonesia's welfare minister, is paying for an ever expanding network of earthen dams to contain the mud, but many people fear the resulting slimy ponds will overflow during the approaching rainy season.

"The volume of mud that is coming out of the hole is not just large, it's enormous," Earl Hunt Jr., an engineer from Woodward, Okla., said while supervising dredging operations.

The government recently gave permission to dump the mud into the sea via a local river

The mud, which stands as deep as 16 feet in places, has submerged or washed into houses in four villages. At least 20 factories and many acres of rice fields and prawn farms have been destroyed.

The mud, which is not toxic, first appeared several days after a blowout deep in Lapindo's well shaft May 29.

Police say the company mishandled the accident by failing to cap the hole properly.

The company declined to give its version of what happened.

[Last modified September 29, 2006, 01:21:11]

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