Well, never let it be said that the energy industries won’t find a way to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear:
It’s tough to put a positive spin on the massive eruption of mud that has displaced more than 12,000 people and buried a large swath of eastern Java in roiling, putrid sludge. But PT Lapindo Brantas, the Indonesian mining company widely blamed for releasing the reservoir of pressurized mud following a drilling accident last May, has come up with a novel form of damage control: sponsoring a sinetron, or Indonesian soap opera, on Surabaya TV station JTV. The 13-part series, Gali Lubang, Tutup Lubang (Digging a Hole, Filling a Hole), is a love story set among refugees left homeless by the mud volcano. “We wanted to show a real story about human interest,” says JTV executive producer Awi Setiawan, who adds that Lapindo paid about $3,300 per episode.It may cost Lapindo far more to dig itself out of this particular corporate hole, however. On Nov. 22 at least 11 people were killed by a gas pipeline explosion caused when a dike built to contain the mud flow collapsed—the latest in a string of public debacles for the company, which is part of a conglomerate controlled by the family of Aburizal Bakrie, the country’s influential Welfare Minister. In the past two months, Lapindo’s corporate parent, PT Energi Mega Persada, has unsuccessfully attempted to unload the beleaguered mining business twice: first, to another Bakrie Group subsidiary for the princely sum of $2; then to the British Virgin Islands-based investment firm Freehold Group. The latter deal collapsed last week after a public outcry, with many Indonesians fearing that the sale might prefigure an attempt by a new owner to declare Lapindo bankrupt, potentially leaving the government to pay for a disaster that one environmental group estimates has already caused $3.6 billion in damage.
Thus far, the soap opera hasn’t been enough to dispel that worry, or polish Lapindo’s befouled image. But with the mud still erupting at a rate of 120,000 cu m per day and all efforts to stanch the flow failing, there may be plenty of time for a sequel.