Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Reader Reply: In defence of engineers

Hi there,

I was somewhat alarmed to read in your article about an environmental disaster in East Java that killed 6000 people and that engineering probably caused the disaster. That size of that death toll might make it the greatest of man made disasters since the Second World War. This surprised me so much I asked one of my engineering friends to comment. Though it does not alter the thrust of your article, indeed it proves it, I thought you would interested in his response that  follows below:

Hi Garth,

I don't know where that article got the 6000 deaths from - I don't recall there being any at the time of        the initial eruption. The mud flow started about 6 to 8  years ago and would not have happened if Bakrie's  company had followed normal drilling practice.
No engineer or drilling expert would dream of drilling a hole in the geological conditions involved without fully casing the hole. Bakri's company decided to save money and did not case critical sections of the borehole - the result was the uncased  hole provided a connection between a thick mud layer and a source of heat and pressure.
The flow is still continuing as far as I know. I think if you type Luhur Sidorejo or just East Java mudflow in Google you will find plenty of info on it. The local journalists have named it Lusi (pronounded Lucy) - by joining the first syllables of Luhur Sidorejo.  Luhur means mud and Sidorejo is the name of the place - 
Dr Laurie Wesley

Garth Barfoot

Hi Garth,

Thanks for the reply, let me clarify.

The deaths were a result of a magnitude 6.3 earthquake that occurred around the same time as the mud flow eruption in 2006. It appears I have conflated the two events together by mistake, thanks for pointing that out. The earthquake that killed thousands had its epicentre over 300km away from the drilling site. It would have been better to focus on the 6000 displaced people as a result of the mud flow, not to mention the wasteland that’s replaced once abundant and green rice paddy fields.  

Mr Bakrie’s company is attempting to defend their drilling practises by painting both these events as entirely natural. However, like your engineer friend points out, there has been some criticism of this position due to the techniques the company were using at the time. With all the talk these days of the geological impact of fracking, it’s simply not clear that this technique is entirely neutral. I don’t think it’s as dangerous to the geological strata as some people, but we do need more data. Whether or not his company’s actions precipitated the disaster will probably be largely ambiguous, but his involvement in the disaster doesn’t necessarily paint his run for office in a good light.


Nathan Smith

Hi Nathan,

Just to make this quite clear - there never was even the slightest possibility that the Yogyakarta earthquake could have caused the mud flow.  By the time the E/Q waves reached the site of the mud flow the ground deformations would have been far too small to cause a fracture that might have allowed the mud to escape.

Bakri and his drilling company used the E/Q line to try to get themselves off the hook.There is also very little doubt that had the drilling company followed normal practice and fully cased the hole, the disaster would not have happened. I've asked numerous people involved in drilling and they are all of one accord on this point. They are uniformly aghast that the drilling proceeded without casing.

My understanding is that not long after the flow started, Bakrie used his money and influence to persuade the Indonesian government to declare the disaster a natural event, and not something caused by the faulty drilling practice. This has let him off the hook as far as compensation for the farmers is concerned, and the government, as usual, is dodging the issue.

The most "chilling" thing facing Indonesia, as said in that article, is the prospect of either Prabowo or Bakrie becoming the country's next president. Prabowo is, or was, married to one of Soeharto's daughters and he is regarded as little better than a thug by many Indonesians. Bakrie is a very wealthy and corrupt operator. He did have a cabinet post in SBY (the current president)'s last government but I don't know the current position. It is said that a lot of Bakri's money helped fund SBY's last election campaign, so SBY is beholden to him. It may be possible that the new mayor of Jakarta could put up a credible campaign, but he doesn't have access to the money that the other two candidates have. He was highly regarded as mayor of Solo, a major city in Central Java, before he ran for mayor of Jakarta.

Enough about the sordid state of Indonesian politics.

Regards, - Dr Laurie Wesley


Dr Laurie Wesley and I were both employees of the Sukarno government some fifty years ago so that accounts for our continuing interest in Indonesian politics.

Keep on writing.

Garth Barfoot


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