Indonesia Cancels Ball-Dropping Into Volcano After Cable Breaks

Indonesian engineers were forced to abandon an attempt to plug a gushing mud volcano by dropping cement balls into its crater on Saturday when a steel cable hoisting the balls broke, officials said.

Over the next few weeks, authorities plan to drop nearly 1,500 concrete balls, weighing up to 500 pounds each, into the geyser that started spewing noxious muck at an oil drilling field in east Java nine months ago.

A creeping sea of sediment has covered dozens of factories, thousands of homes, displaced 13,000 people and blocked major roads into the country's second largest city, Surabaya.

A string of four balls was successfully lowered into the hole Saturday in heavy rain and wind, said Rudi Novrianto, a spokesman for a government task force handling the disaster.

"Thank God, we have managed to drop one chain, equipped with sensors to monitor pressure and depth," he said. "We had to halt the process because of the broken steel cable. We will continue tomorrow after repairing it."

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It was the second set back in as many days after work was postponed on Friday without an explanation. Officials had hoped to drop between 5 and 10 strands of balls into the crater on Saturday.

"We can estimate that the balls have reached (a depth of ) about 500 meters," said Satria Wicaksono, a physics expert at the Bandung Institute of Technology who is on the team supervising the work.

Proponents of the cement ball plan hope it will reduce the volume of mud by up to 70 percent, after surging at a rate equivalent to about a million oil drums a day.

Critics, however, doubt it will succeed and warn it could be dangerous or that deep underground pressure could push the mud up elsewhere.

Mud fissures occur naturally along volatile tectonic belts like the one running below Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago. But opinions differ about the cause of the latest rupture.

Independent geological studies suggest it was triggered by faulty gas exploration techniques by operator PT Lapindo Brantas, which created fissures in a bed of porous limestone.

Other research supports the company's assertion that it was a natural disaster resulting from increased seismic activity following a major earthquake two days before the mud began flowing.