Featured image: Aerial view of the Baghjan oil field engulfed in fire, in Tinsukia, Assam, June 9, 2020. Photo: PTI
The blowout at an oil well near Baghjan village in Assam took a turn on June 9 with a major fire outbreak at the well. For almost two weeks, the people living in Baghjan and nearby villages have been facing the impacts of the blowout – an uncontrolled release of gas – from an oil-producing well under Baghjan oilfield, operated by the public sector unit Oil India Limited (OIL).
The impact of the fire was particularly severe on the residents of Baghjan village, located around one kilometre from the site, who were already living in a relief camp following the blowout on May 27, amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions as well.
According to one of the residents, Satyajeet Moran, “People of our village now had to evacuate the relief camp set up in the village school and go and seek shelter at Jokaimukh village, which is 12 km away from here. After the blowout, this fire has completely finished our village. Many houses were burnt along with widespread damage to property.”
OIL released a statement saying that the well caught fire while the clearing operation was on at the well site. While the initial statement reported no casualties, on the morning of Wednesday, June 10, bodies of two firefighters, both of whom were employees of OIL were recovered from a pond near the site by National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). The firefighters have been identified as Tikheswar Gohain and Durlov Gogoi, both of whom were missing since Tuesday evening after the fire broke out.
The fire has also aggravated the environmental impact of the blowout, with the site of the well less than a kilometre from the Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and only 500 metres from the wetland Maguri-Motapung Beel, an Important Bird Area (IBA).
Naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury came down heavily on OIL, saying that the public sector unit’s lack of expertise and incapability has pushed Maguri Beel to the brink of death. “Today’s fire has completely destroyed Maguri Beel. It is a massive loss. We don’t how many years it will take to revive Maguri. So many birds, reptiles, fishes which were the lifeline of Maguri have vanished. There was a herd of wild buffaloes seen regularly in Maguri. Even they are nowhere to be seen since the last few days. They couldn’t control the well in Baghjan and now if they start drilling in DSNP, it will be all over. They can’t justify mining in DSNP.”
Last month, OIL received environment clearance from the Ministry of Forest and Environment & Climate Change (MoEFCC) to carry out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in seven locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park, which locals and environmental activists have been protesting.
The beginning of the ordeal
It was morning as usual on May 27 for the people of Baghjan village in Tinsukia district of Assam, when they heard a deafening sound. Some initially thought it was the sound of a jet plane or helicopter flying close to the surface, assuming that perhaps a minister might have arrived to monitor the flood situation in the area. As it turns out, the sound was of a blowout, a sudden and uncontrolled release of gas/oil from a producing well under Baghjan oilfield, operated by the public sector unit Oil India Limited (OIL), around a kilometre away from the village.
A statement released by OIL says, “At around 10.30 AM on May 27, the producing well of Baghjan 5 under Baghjan oilfield suddenly became very active while workover operations were going on. The ongoing operations had to be immediately suspended as the well started releasing natural gas in an uncontrolled manner. The blowout happened while workover operations was going to produce gas from new sand (oil and gas-bearing reservoir) at a depth of 3729 metres.”
The oil well, which has been operational since 2005, was producing around 100,000 (1 lakh) Standard Cubic Metre per day (SCMD) of gas from a depth of 3870 metres.
Satyajeet Moran, a resident of Baghjan was having his breakfast when he heard the sound. “We came out of the house immediately. People were scared and running helter-skelter. Soon we realised what happened. Initially, it was the sound which was disturbing us but soon people in the village started complaining of dizziness, irritation in eyes and breathlessness because of the gas coming out from the well,” said Moran, who is also the president of the youth organization in the village, Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha.
More than 2500 people from 1610 families were evacuated from the affected areas and stationed at relief camps set up at Baghjan Dighultarrang M.E School, St. Joseph School- Baghjan Tea Estate, Gateline LP School, Dighultarrang and No.1 Baghjan L.P School, said a statement from OIL. Meanwhile, OIL has also declared an area of 1.5 km around the gas well as a safety zone, where entry is prohibited.
Villages further away face impact too
Hemanta Moran, a school teacher in Baghjan says, “My house is just 1 km away from the well. The sound and the gas emanating from the well is causing discomfort for everybody, especially the elderly and children. In fact, many villagers have sent their kids to their relatives’ places in other villages or in Tinsukia town. The situation is also difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic as there is not much scope to maintain social distancing inside the camps.”
Following the fire, there have been reports that the camps have had to be evacuated as well.
Prior to the fire, it was reported in local media that five people from nearby villages died from gas leakage. However, Bhaskar Pegu, Deputy Commissioner (DC), Tinsukia said that it is unlikely that the deaths were caused by the blowout.
“As per the preliminary reports, the deceased people were suffering from morbidities like TB and liver condition. One woman who was suffering from epilepsy died from drowning. However, a magisterial enquiry has been ordered into the matter to find out the exact cause of the deaths,” Pegu said.
Resident Satyajeet Moran, while admitting that all the deceased people had an existing health condition, said, “But it is also possible that their condition [was] aggravated because of the gas and sound following the blowout.”
While Baghjan has been the most affected by the blowout due to its proximity to the well, villages located further downstream like Notungaon, Milanpur, Hatibagh, Bebejia and Barekuri have also suffered. Droplets of condensate (which is the residue from gas condensing after coming in contact with water) have reportedly spread up to a radius of 5 km, falling on trees, tea gardens, grasslands, water bodies, and on the roofs of houses.
Jiban Dutta, a resident of Notungaon says, “Although our village is around 2 km from the well, the wind is carrying the gas which is creating all sorts of health hazards for us. Droplets of condensate have created pores on the tin roof of some houses in our village. Unfortunately, we are facing apathy of district administration and OIL authorities as they haven’t addressed the issues faced by the villages located downstream. In our village, we have ourselves started a relief centre where some people have been shifted.”
Blowout can impact soil, water bodies
On World Environment Day on June 5, hundreds of local villagers gathered to protest against the damage caused by the blowout and demanded compensation. A day later, on June 6, OIL authorities passed a statement announcing that an amount of Rs. 30,000 will be provided to each of the impacted families as immediate relief after a tripartite meeting with the district administration and Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha.
However, there is no clarity on whether the list of beneficiaries will include affected people from the downstream villages. When asked, DC Pegu said, “We are yet to finalise the list of beneficiaries. Our people are in touch with every affected village.” So far, no casualties from the fire have been reported.
The ill-effects of the blowout are not just limited to health hazards. The locals are claiming that this incident will severely affect their livelihood as well. Niranta Gohain, a well known environmental activist from the area said, “Agriculture, fishing and animal rearing are the main occupation of most people in this area. But now because of the oil spill, agricultural land will become infertile and no farming will be possible for many years. Also, fishes and domestic animals are dying in large numbers because oil has contaminated grasslands and water bodies.”
Explaining the probable impact of the oil spill on the surroundings, O.P. Singh, Faculty at the Department of Environmental Studies, North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) said, “Condensate contains hundreds of chemical compounds, many of which are highly toxic and carcinogenic in nature. If the soil in nearby areas is contaminated by condensate, its fertility will be surely affected. However, to know the extent of the contamination, a proper study needs to take place. The fertility of such land can be regained by decomposition of hydrocarbon by using technology but it is a costly process. In the natural course, it might take a long time. Also, if the oil spills on the nearby tea gardens, they will be severely affected as the contamination will affect the productivity of the tea leaves and it will not be possible to market them. Similarly, oil spilling on water bodies will lead to fishes and other aquatic animals dying from the lack of oxygen.”
Tridiv Hazarika, Spokesperson of OIL, said that the authorities are trying their best to reduce the damage on humans and ecology.
Impact on biodiversity
Together, Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and Maguri Motapung Beel form a unique biodiversity hotspot where scores of tourists visit every year. DSNP, known for its population of feral horses, is home to 36 species of mammals and 382 species of birds. Maguri Beel, classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) on the other hand is known for its avian and aquatic fauna and is a favourite of birders.
Deborshee Gogoi, a lecturer in the Department of Commerce, Digboi College spoke about the stench of oil and sound coming from the well that might drive away the birds. “The sound is in fact reaching my house in Tinsukia which is 12 kms away from the spot. So, you can imagine what will be the condition of the birds,” he says.
Gogoi, who is a passionate birder and co-author of Birds of Maguri-Motapung Beel, said, “Birders from all over the globe come here to see birds like Marsh Babbler, Jerdon’s Babbler, Swamp Prinia, Black-breasted Parrotbill, Swamp Francolin, etc. However, despite this being the nesting season of the birds, very few of them can be seen in the area presently. Either they have flown away or they have died.”
Notungaon resident Jiban Dutta, who is also a bird guide by profession, said that on June 6, locals managed to rescue a king quail which was covered by oil and handed it over to the forest department.
Following the fire on June 9, further damage to the ecology, especially to Maguri-Motapung Beel, is expected and it will likely be a long road to recovery.
A carcass of an endangered Gangetic dolphin was recovered just a day after the blowout from Maguri Beel, creating a sensation among the locals who claimed that it had died from the oil spill. The carcass of the dolphin has been sent for post mortem and the report is yet to arrive.
Prior to the fire at the well, Rajendra Singh Bharti, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Wildlife, Tinsukia said, “Biodiversity in the area has definitely been affected not just by the gas but also the sound. The impact will also be felt in the national park because the core area of DSNP is just 900 meters from the Baghjan well. State Forest Department has constituted a committee to study the impact on biodiversity. Our team is collecting samples from the Maguri-Motapung Beel and other nearby areas. Our next plan is to collect samples from places which are far from the blowout site but has been affected nevertheless.”
Row over environment clearance
OIL received environment clearance from the environment ministry in May to carry out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in seven locations under DSNP, which was met with an uproar from the locals and environmental activists. Following the blowout, the protests have gained momentum.
Regarding the clearance, Hazarika says, “We had applied for this clearance in 2016 and we got the clearance after four years only when we were able to convince the government that we will not be drilling inside DSNP. We will be using a new technology called extended reach drilling (ERD), with the help of which wells can be drilled up to a depth of 4 km from the existing well plinth without entering the protected area. Through ERD, we can reach the target depth of around 3.5 km beneath the surface of the national park without carrying any drilling in the park. In any case, we have just got the clearance. From this point, it will take at least two years to start drilling in those locations.”
Locals however are far from convinced. In a memorandum addressed to the Chief Minister of Assam, submitted through the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Tinsukia, they have raised following demands – rehabilitation and compensation for the villagers impacted and restoration of their livelihood and health, urgent cleaning up of the village areas and water bodies contaminated by the oil spill, OIL to be held accountable for social impacts and irreparable loss of biodiversity, an investigation should be pursued to prosecute responsible officials for the incident and OIL should stop further oil exploration and drilling in eco-sensitive and fragile biodiversity zones in Assam.
Noted environmental activist and coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, Himanshu Thakkar, terming this incident as a major industrial and policy disaster, said, “While taking up a venture like this in a biodiversity hotspot, OIL should have had a contingency plan to tackle eventualities. Who is going to compensate for the damage this incident has incurred on biodiversity in the region? Any activity which contaminates river or water bodies should go through a proper environment clearance/assessment process. There should be an enquiry on why this incident happened and why it took so long to bring the situation under control? Also, there should be an independent assessment of the damage to the environment. Lastly, permission given to OIL for exploration of hydrocarbon around Dibru Saikhowa should be cancelled.”
Meanwhile, OIL has also approached CSIR- National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun for conducting a detailed impact assessment study. OIL has also served a show-cause notice to Gujarat based Chartered Hired Rig M/s John Energy Pvt Ltd who were carrying out the workover operations in the well. Also, a five-member inquiry committee has been formed to find out if there is any prima facie evidence of human error.
International experts on-site to control the situation
Almost two weeks after the blowout, gas continued to flow out uncontrollably and was aggravated when the well caught fire on June 9.
While the crisis management team from ONGCL, Nazira was stationed at the site to assist OIL’s effort on the ground, later the authorities decided to contact Singapore based firm M/s Alert Disaster Control, experts in controlling blowout.
Three members team from the Singapore based firm Alert, who have come in to manage the crisis, expressed that it is now a safe environment for working and they are confident that the well can be capped safely. A statement released by OIL said, “The situation demands arrangement of large quantities of water, installation of high discharge pumps and removal of debris. All the operations as per Alert will take about 4 weeks. Efforts will be made to reduce the timeframe as much as possible.”
The team of specialists arrived on the site on June 7. These experts, who have experience of handling more than a thousand blowouts in 135 countries, inspected the site on June 8. Subsequently, the well caught fire on June 9.
Responding to the lack of expertise and loss of time in controlling the situation, OIL spokesperson Hazarika said, “No oil and gas company in the world has got the expertise to handle a blowout of this magnitude. There are few firms like Alert, Wild Well and Boots & Coots who have this expertise and they are called whenever such blowout takes place anywhere in the world, whether in Africa, Middle-East or USA-Canada. Of course, crucial time was lost because their clearance was delayed due to the COVID-19 situation. Ideally, they should have been here by June 4. Though the company is based in Singapore, one member was in Perth and another in Bangkok and so it took a bit of time to bring them together from different parts of the globe in the middle of a pandemic.”
The previous time OIL experienced a blowout in Assam was in 2005, when a major fire broke out in an abandoned oil well at Kuhibari near Dikhom in Dibrugarh district, leading to the evacuation of around 5000 people. Houston based company Boots & Koots was called to bring the situation under control.
Comparing both incidents, Hazarika said, “This time, there is no blazing fire and crude oil is not coming out which is a relief. So from the environmental aspect, maybe this is better among two devils. However, killing this particular well has a different challenge. Dikhom was not a producing well and there was no work going around at that time. We got a lot of open space in that well. Here, we were fully operating the well. Here we have a mobile drilling rig hanging on top of the exposed well. This is creating challenges for us to approach the well and bring in machinery and equipment. Also, the Dikhom incident took place in September when there was no rain. This time, the monsoon has made our work difficult.”