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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Mark Sampson's exit leaves the FA still trying to convince itself of its own infallibility

Football's governing body won't be able to repair the damage to its reputation in silence.

By the end, it appeared as if Mark Sampson was weathering the storm.

Despite personal reflections that the uproar and scandal that has surrounded his recent tenure as England women's football manger was taking a toll, he seemed, as of Tuesday night, firmly ensconced in the post he had held since 2013.

Player Eniola Aluko’s claims of bullying and racism against the coach – given little backing from teammates and, on balance, disregarded by consecutive enquiries – remained a persistent story, yet talk of a fresh investigation were trumped in importance by Sampson’s continued presence at training and in the dugout.

The BBC’s occasionally rabid attachment to proceedings gave the saga prolonged oxygen, but when Sampson seemed to retain the FA’s support – taking charge of the Lionesses’ 6-0 win over Russia on Tuesday night – the worst appeared to be over.

With hindsight, the vultures were simply sharpening their talons.

Sampson’s sacking – less than 24 hours after that Russia game – came after a report was unearthed detailing a historic complaint against him from his time coaching Bristol Academy – a job he left to take up the England post.

In what has long become customary, the FA received these claims nearly four years ago yet failed to act definitively – initially concluding that their new coach was “not a safeguarding risk”. However as the recent crisis depended, the full details of these initial accusations were allegedly not revealed to senior leadership.

Confirming Sampson's departure on Wednesday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn carried a pained expression reminiscent of former incumbent Mark Palios, who, in another entry in the annals of great FA crises, resigned in 2004 as a result of an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam.

Glenn will hope that his own head is not sought in the weeks ahead as his conduct throughout the Sampson saga is probed.

It also marks yet another turbulent 12 months for the beleaguered governing body, who almost exactly a year ago to the day, parted company with England men’s coach Sam Allardyce after just a single game in charge – the former Bolton and Sunderland coach getting the bullet as a result of transfer advice offered to undercover journalists.

The Allardyce departure was handled with uncharacteristic efficiency – a symptom, perhaps, of the initial scepticism behind his appointment rather than any particular reflection on his crimes.

With clear-eyed judgement, it is difficult not to have a portion of sympathy for Sampson – who, cleared by those investigations, maintained the very visible backing of his squad – right up until Wednesday’s bitter denouement.

That he’s been paid in full for the three-year contract signed last summer speaks for how soft a line the FA took on the events that forced the sacking – hoping, perhaps, for as quiet an ending as possible for both parties.

Regrettably, for the FA at least, considerable damage to their reputation will not be something they can repair in silence – not in an era where women’s football enjoys such a high profile in the national consciousness and the body continues to mark itself an easy target for criticism. 

The exact contents of those 2014 allegations and that report are sure to be known down the line – non-disclosure agreements willing – but are as of now only conjecture and innuendo.

Without details, it’s difficult to know how hard to judge Sampson. The facts of his performance on the pitch mark him out as having been an accomplished coach. That is no longer the exclusive measure of success.

Detractors will murmur darkly about there being no smoke without fire, while his supporters will point to the unique nature of the job and the often confrontational elements of its duties.

Sampson, at 34, is still a relatively young man and may be able to coach again once the rancour has subsided – although with a reputation severely bloodied, will look on the two-year salary windfall with some gratitude.

Despite Glenn’s insistence that his former manager is “clear to work” in the sport, it’s hard to envisage his career ever resuming in the women’s game.

The FA itself is again left rudderless as it tries to convince itself of its own infallibility. Flabby management structures and the perception of being an antiquated country club – valid or not – will be revisited with relish.

Perhaps positively, it could herald a more honest conversation behind what success looks like for the national game as a whole. Inclusiveness and development of a robust culture are often the first words to disappear from the vocabulary once on field results start to falter.  

For once, the identity of the next coach is not the urgent dilemma facing the FA.

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