TOXIC mud still spurting from a gas drilling well part-owned by Australian mining giant Santos is threatening to mire East Java in a full-scale disaster.
Unable to prevent millions of tonnes of mud from blocking highways and rail links, experts propose to divert the flow into the ocean, risking another environmental catastrophe.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the disaster zone south of Surabaya yesterday, after thousands more villagers were evacuated when the rising mud breached levees.
For two months mud has flowed from an exploratory well near Porong, inundating 25 square kilometres, putting 1000 people in hospital with breathing difficulties and forcing more than 10,000 from their homes. It has cut roads, covered train lines and threatens the rail link between Jakarta and Surabaya, Indonesia's busiest port.
On Thursday, more than 5000 people fled a wave of mud when a dam broke, leading to suggestions that large areas of land should be left to the mud and residents relocated. Authorities are concerned that other six-metre-high dirt dams erected to contain the mud will not hold.
Cost estimates range from hundreds of millions to more than $A4 billion, with compensation costs continuing to climb.
Santos has declined to comment directly on the cause of the disaster and clean-up attempts, saying these are matters for the well operator and Indonesian authorities.
The episode is set to become an economic and public relations disaster for Santos and one of Indonesia's most powerful men, Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie, whose companies co-own the gas well. A firm controlled by Mr Bakrie's family firm also owns the company doing the drilling, Lapindo, which is likely to be held liable for the damage.
A police investigation has found seven Lapindo employees were suspected of criminal negligence over the drilling.
An emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday night decided that all measures must be taken to protect and compensate people living in the area, safeguard basic infrastructure, preserve East Java's economy and lessen the environmental damage. Lapindo should meet all expenses, cabinet ordered.
Debate continues over how to deal with the growing ocean of mud. Government tests have found the mud contains dangerous levels of toxins such as benzene, toluene and xylene.
The vice-chairman of Indonesia's oil and gas regulating body, Trijana Kartoatmodjo, has said efforts to halt the mud had been ineffective and it should be channelled to the ocean through a 19-kilometre pipe.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar has expressed concern, saying the mud must first be treated and neutralised.
Once the rainy season arrives in October, locals believe the mud will burst through the dams.
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