The mystery of Lusi

The struggle to discover the cause of the eruption of a mud volcano has vital importance for the loc

Volcanoes are usually stately and sometimes violent. Great mountains with smooth slopes and circular calderas, they lie dormant for centuries, or give off occasional wisps of steam and, more rarely, surges of lava and clouds of ash. And every now and then, one of them explodes spectacularly.

But the volcano that erupted at 5am on 29 May 2006 in Porong, Indonesia, was different; no mountain, just a spreading lake of simmering mud and a 30m plume of sulphurous steam. Up to 50,000 people lost their homes, more than a dozen villages were submerged and two dozen factories abandoned. Rice paddies and shrimp ponds were inundated, roads and railways diverted. The death toll so far is 13, killed when a gas pipeline ruptured.

At its peak, the mud volcano, called Lusi, pumps out 150,000 cubic metres a day, enough to fill Wembley Stadium in about three weeks. And it’s been gushing for nearly two and a half years, with no end in sight.

One recent study by a Durham University-led team considered what Lusi would be like if it keeps erupting for another decade. Attempts to cork the volcano by dropping thousands of concrete balls linked by chains into the vent failed completely. Environmentalists fear that diversion of the mudflow into the Porong river will destroy the local fisheries. Meanwhile the levees keep rising.

Mud volcanoes are not well understood, partly because they usually occur on the seabed. What is clear is that a hot, high pressure reservoir of liquid, in this case mostly water, broke through a rocky cap and began percolating through a layer of clay, turning it into mud and carrying it up to geyser forth at the surface.

The cause of this disaster has generated scientific, legal and political debates as heated as the 60C eruption. Two hypotheses are in play, one is that the magnitude 6.3 Yogyakarta earthquake, which killed 6,000 people two days earlier and 260km away, triggered Lusi. The other is that the Banjar Panji-1 drilling rig operated by PT Lapindo Brantas, which was exploring for natural gas just 150 metres from Lusi’s main vent, set it off.

The legal and political arguments swirl around this central scientific issue. Legally the question is who should pay for dealing with the disaster and compensating the victims. If the drilling was at fault, the companies involved should cough up. If it was a consequence of the earthquake, the government is responsible. The stakes are high; the IMF estimates the cost of Lusi at some £2bn.

And that’s where the politics comes in. Lapindo is 50 per cent owned by Energi Mega Persada, part of the business conglomerate controlled by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for the People’s Welfare. Mr Bakrie has been criticised for distancing himself from the disaster, both as a businessman and as a minister. His refusal to visit Lusi prompted angry activists to spray 700kg of mud on his ministry’s gates in Jakarta. Although his family’s company provides food and other aid to the refugees, and has agreed to pay them £240m in compensation, they denounce it at every turn.

The scientific question came to the fore again at the Geological Society of London on 22 October. Proponents of the earthquake hypothesis, employed by the oil companies, claimed that evidence from their well proved its innocence.

Bambang Istadi, a geologist and exploration manager at Energi Mega Persada, argued that if the 2,800m borehole was guilty, a powerful pressure spike, called a kick, would have been observed. Although there was a spike, he said the roughnecks brought it under control in less than an hour, before it could damage the rock formation. Pressure tests since then have shown that the well is intact; with no leaks in or out. Nor is there any evidence of an underground blowout in the formation surrounding the well; if there had been, the borehole’s temperature would have risen to match the volcano’s and the remaining piece of the drill left in the hole would have slipped down into an opening abyss. So if it wasn’t the well, it must have been the earthquake.

Professor Richard Davies of Durham University’s Centre for Research into Earth Energy Systems, who also made a presentation to the Geological Society, remained unconvinced. The kick was powerful enough to damage the rock formation, he argued, and the lower portion of the well had not been sheathed to prevent such problems. The evidence cited by Mr Istadi can be explained if the massive upheaval when the volcano was triggered resulted in the well becoming pressure sealed from what was going on around it. And crucially, the earthquake was too far away and too weak to have caused the mud volcano. So if it wasn’t the earthquake, it must have been the drilling.

The scientific question, then, is far from settled. But progress is being made. So confident are they of their data, that Mr Istadi and the companies have agreed to share it with Professor Davies. If one side or the other can carry the scientific argument, the legal and political issues will be clarified too. For the people whose homes have been swallowed by Lusi, that can only be good.

Paul Rodgers is a freelance science, medicine and technology journalist. He was born in Derby, the son of a science teacher, and emigrated with his family to the Canadian prairies when he was nine. He began writing for a student newspaper in Winnipeg in 1982 and had staff positions on several Canadian dailies. Despite his return to these shores 15 years ago, he still talks with a funny accent.
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6 times the Home Office broke up British families in the name of immigration

Irene Clennell came to the UK in 1988, married a British man and had a family. In 2017, she was deported. 

Irene Clennell first arrived in London in 1988, before the Home Office’s younger staff members were even born. Soon after, she married a British man called John, and received indefinite leave to remain. They made their home in County Durham. They have two children and one grandchild. 

Now, though, Clennell is in Singapore, after being detained and forcibly deported on the orders of the British government

Her crime? She spent periods of time back in Singapore caring for her ailing parents, enough to invalidate her indefinite leave to remain. It seems the Home Office decided her parents took too long to die.

Clennell’s case matters – and not just because her husband last heard from her sobbing on a plane. Her family is the latest to be torn apart by the government’s stringent immigration rules. 

As well as an inflexible approach to the amount of time spent in the UK, the rules demand that British citizens must earn £18,600 a year to bring over a non-EU spouse – a rule that discriminates against women, who are more likely to work part-time for less pay, and those living in lower-paid regions of the country. 

With EU nationals facing an uncertain future, and the government desperate to meet immigration reduction targets, this inflexible approach matters. Here are some of the families that have felt the consequences:  

1. The father who can’t see his son

Toni Stew, from Worcester, met her husband Mohamed El Faramawi in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But this was no holiday romance – they got married six years later, and have a young son.

But because Stew works part time, in order to care for her son, she does not earn enough to sponsor her husband’s move to the UK

El Faramawi has only met his son a few times since the birth 17 months earlier.

2. A couple trying to look after their parents

Kevin Draper, from Bristol, met his wife Mae, originally from the Philippines, through friends in Hong Kong. In 1995 they settled in the UK, but then a job came up in Dubai. 

In 2011, sad news summoned Kevin home – he needed to care for his mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, Mae’s mother passed away, and she went to support her family in the Philippines.

She was advised to apply for a UK visitor visa, and finally received one in 2013 after two failed attempts. Having been reunited with her husband and daughter, she decided to apply for a spouse visa. But in 2014 she was told that in order to do that, she would have to return to the Philippines, and the process could take another two years.

3. A British father who was made redundant

Dominic James met his wife, an American named Katy, in 2005. After they married a year later, she managed to join him in Edinburgh for three years.

They moved out to Seattle, where they had a daughter, but the couple always intended to return to the UK. James managed to get a transfer from his employer to the Edinburgh office, but was made redundant shortly afterwards.

Despite Katy’s work experience in the UK, her visa application was denied because James, now self-employed, did not earn enough to meet the minimum income requirement rules. (The Home Office eventually granted Katy 30 months longer to stay).

4. A mother who thought the UK was home

Beverley Boothe arrived in the UK in 1979 as a teenager, to join her parents who had emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s. 

According to Boothe, she received indefinite leave to remain in 1980. At some point in the next three decades, she lost the passport with the original stamp in it. But she assumed the Home Office had a record of her application.

It turns out they didn’t – records are only kept for 15 years from the date of the “last action”. Boothe, a criminology graduate, gave the Home Office her fingerprints and information about her family. Just before Christmas 2013, she was ordered to go to Jamaica or face deportation.

Not only did Boothe have no close family to return to, she had her own children in the UK. Although they all have British fathers, her youngest daughters were unable to obtain passports because of her status.

5. A father facing separation from his wife… and parents 

In 2012 AJ, an American, moved with his father to South Shields, Tyneside, when he went to join his new wife. There, AJ met Lian Papay, and fell in love. The couple discovered they were expecting, and married in 2013.

But Lian did not earn enough to sponsor AJ, and so her husband is forced to rely on short-term visas. Ironically, when AJ flys back to the United States, he leaves not only his wife and son, but his father and stepmother.  

6. A woman who wanted to care for her father-in-law

Gary Walsh, a Falklands war veteran, married his wife Xia Zhao, an accountant, more than 16 years ago and has two adolescent children. 

The family lived in Malaysia, but flew to the UK after hearing Gary’s elderly father was unwell. 

Xia Zhao came on a one-year visa, but after discovering how ill her father-in-law was, applied to stay and work so the family could care for him. Her application was refused, and she was advised to apply instead from China in a process that could take years. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.