SEDARI, Indonesia – Fish and crustaceans usually run strong in the Java Sea, but the men of Sedari village, on the northern coast of the Indonesian island of Java, have no plans to go out on its waters.
Weeks after an unexpected gush of crude oil from an offshore well sent an inky stain across 12 miles of shoreline that is home to a dozen villages, Sedari’s fishermen are still grounded.
Nurji, 25, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was born in Sedari and began working the seas as a teenager. These days, he spends his days ferrying bags of polluted sand from the beach. “There’s no point going out there,” he said. “There are no fish to catch.”
In a country prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, Indonesia is now contending with a man-made environmental disaster the scope of which is still unknown. And in a country rich in both natural resources and corruption, the slow, piecemeal and opaque response to the spill by the state-owned energy behemoth Pertamina has only exacerbated the effects of the initial leak. “The problem has been handled slowly, causing it to escalate,” said Leonard Simanjuntak, head of Greenpeace Indonesia. “For sure, an environmental disaster has occurred.”
But this is a country where the eruption of the world’s biggest mud volcano, caused by a gas-drilling failure by a company affiliated with a politically influential tycoon, has gone unpunished. More than a decade later, that mudflow has engulfed an area more than twice the size of Central Park and is still oozing toxic gunk.
Most of Indonesia’s fishermen barely make a living from the maritime bounty of the world’s largest archipelago nation. Before, Nurji could count on $14 a day from his catch, plus more on weekends when he took tourists on fishing excursions. Both income streams have dried up.
Along the beach, the stench of oil hangs heavy. Holidaymakers wading in the surf have been replaced by workers in protective gear. Trucks with “toxic” stickers line the road, ready to cart away the contaminated earth.
“It used to be lively here but now it is dead,” said Darsiyah, a vendor. “I don’t know how much longer we can survive.”
The problem began on July 12, when a pressure imbalance in a well bore under one of Pertamina’s offshore platforms caused a stream of crude oil to spurt from the well. Three days later, when an oily sheen began to appear on the surface, along with gas bubbles, Pertamina acknowledged that it had an emergency on its hands.
Faster reporting would have “minimized the hazards caused by the spill,” said Nugroho Dwi Hananto, director of an oceanography research center at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.
By July 18, the oil spill had spread more than 1 mile. Since then, 12 villages outside the capital, Jakarta, have been overwhelmed by an oily jelly covering about 12 miles of shoreline. The spill has polluted more than 200 square miles of water, damaging mangrove forests and estuaries.
Pertamina, which has been linked to a number of accidents, said it reacted as quickly as it could. It said it deployed floating barriers and nets to contain the spill, along with giant octopus-like skimmers to suck up the muck. It also hired Boots & Coots, a U.S. firm that handled the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Still, Pertamina admits that it will not be able to plug the leak with cement until at least the end of September.