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Muddy waters in polluter’s award

What do you get for instigating a nation’s worst human-made disaster, flooding 600 hectares with toxic mud from an unsafe gas well, cutting key highways and displacing about 40,000 people? In Indonesia, you get a government award for complying with safety and environmental standards.

A public relations campaign by gas company Lapindo, owned by the Peoples Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie, has been boosted by the Environment Ministry’s. Since a drilling well erupted in an unstoppable torrent of mud in East Java two years ago, Lapindo has gone to extraordinary lengths to escape blame.

Yesterday, Environment Ministry officials chuckled when asked about Lapindo’s gong after an environmental audit of more than 500 companies, then declined to be quoted.

Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar expressed some scepticism, saying he had questioned the “auditing team about the validity of the ranking, as some big companies which have come under public scrutiny earned a better ranking”.

The award demonstrated the Government’s toothlessness in dealing with major polluters, according to environment watchdog, Walhi. The decision, under an official auditing program called Proper, was “simply improper”, spokesman Pius Ginting said.

“There is nothing serious Lapindo does to handle the mud flow,” Mr Ginting said. “They threw the mud into the sea through the Porong River.”

A Lapindo spokeswoman, Yuniati Terryana, said the company was delighted with the award, deflecting questions about the mud flow’s damage.

“Where should we dump the mud into then?” she asked. “We did it to the sea after obtaining green light from the Government.

“We continue to keep our operations in accordance to the health, safety and environment standards despite the mud flow.”

Although Lapindo claims an earthquake more than 250 kilometres away caused the disaster, an authoritative scientific study has pinpointed negligence and cost cutting.

Drillers failed to use a safety casing for the exploratory well near the town of Sidoarjo, resulting in discharge of 1 million barrels of mud a day, international experts from Berkeley University, Durham University and Adelaide University found.

Lapindo was awarded a blue certificate by the Proper audit, stating it met environmental and safety standards. Privately, one Environment Ministry official said the audit examined nearby Lapindo sites but excluded the mud flow as it was considered a natural disaster.

Mark Forbes, Jakarta (The Age)
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