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Plan to build new coast with mudflow

INDONESIA’S Environment Minister wants to dredge a $730 million, 24 kilometre-long channel to build a new coastline in East Java with the mud from an unstoppable “volcano” that erupted from a gas drilling well two years ago.

The announcement by Rachmat Witoelar came after the Government’s response to the disaster was condemned by its own Human Rights Commission. An inquiry described the failure to halt the mudflow and compensate victims as a gross violation of human rights.

Conceding that authorities could not stop the devastating torrent, Mr Witoelar said yesterday that it could be channelled to the coast. There, it could be used to build a new coastline stretching at least 15 kilometres.

In an interview with the Herald, Mr Witoelar said he would soon submit the radical proposal to cabinet. All attempts to plug the volcano had failed and “it is beyond the capacity of us to stop it”, he said.

The Human Rights Commission’s scathing report marked yesterday’s second anniversary of the eruption near Surabaya, which has flooded seven square kilometres with toxic mud and displaced 36,000 people.

It noted that the gas company Lapindo, owned by Indonesia’s richest man and the Minister for People’s Welfare, Aburizal Bakrie, had been protected by the state, while victims had not received promised compensation.

Although Lapindo drilled without a required safety casing to prevent mud and gas escaping, it claims the leak was caused by an earthquake more than 600 kilometres away. Mr Bakrie said his firm would pay $300 million in relocation compensation as a benevolent gesture, but the Government has been left with costs which will run into the billions.

A study by British and Indonesian geological experts released this week warns the disaster will worsen. The weight of the more than 1 billion barrels of mud spouting from the leak each day is likely to collapse into a huge crater, with mud drowning more villages and diverting rivers.

The mud was now 20 metres thick and causing the area to sink, said Richard Davies, professor of geology at the University of Durham. It could drop 140 metres over the next 10 years.

Mr Witoelar said attempts to drill relief wells and erect dams had failed. “We have tried everything to stop it; I believe it will not stop,” he said. “My ministry has made plans for a solution: to channel to the sea, for 24 kilometres. It’s big, around 200 metres wide.”

He defended the Government’s failure to seek damages from Mr Bakrie’s company. “We are afraid we might lose,” he said. “The scientists are split. Perhaps they should be paying more, but we cannot have a judicial decision that they win – we would have to refund the $300 million they have already paid.”

Mr Bakrie had maintained he was not liable, the Environment Minister said, but he was paying the costs of rehousing some of those affected due to a “moral responsibility”. He denied Mr Bakrie’s presence in cabinet had influenced any decisions on the mudflow.

The Australian mining giant Santos is a minority shareholder in the Lapindo well and has agreed to pay a proportional share of compensation costs.

Mark Forbes in Jakarta

Sumber: Sidney Morning Herald

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