Another in a series of industrial disasters in India during the lockdown, last month, on May 27, 2020, Oil India Limited (OIL) reported a blowout during workover operations at the Baghjan 5 oil well at the Baghjan Oilfield in Tinsukia district, Assam. The blowout led to an uncontrolled release of natural gas from the well, endangering not only humans, but also the lives of the flora and fauna in the area, cited various media reports.Q
Today, 11 days later, the oil well, located approximately 900 metres from the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is still releasing gas uncontrollably. Efforts to control it have reportedly been hampered due to the bad weather conditions in the area.
The Assam Pollution Board Chairman, Y Suryanarayana said that the gas is travelling to the northeast and condensate is mostly falling on bamboo, tea gardens, banana trees and betel nut trees, The Telegraph reported.
Soon after the incident, pictures of the carcasses of Gangetic Dolphin and dead fish in Maguri Motapung Bell, near the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park had gone viral on social media. Locals have given detailed accounts of the damage caused due to the livestock, water bodies and the ecology stating that the immediate impact will be felt by small farmers and fishermen who depend on the environment for their livelihoods.
Reports show that OIL has engaged the National Accreditation Board for Education and Training (NABET), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the national Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the Wildlife Association of India to conduct impact assessment studies. It has also engaged The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) for bio-remediation.
OIL also sought the help of Singapore firm Alert Disaster Control to stop the blowout, which was given one time ‘exceptional clearance’ to get its experts to India as international air travel during Covid-19 remained suspended.
A statement by OIL said that around 1,610 families had been evacuated from the nearby areas and were housed in four relief camps, apart from being given all necessary support like food, water, and medicines. Villagers said that the roads, trees and fields were caked with oil. Many residents complained of nausea, vomiting, ear ache and respiratory issues, The Telegraph reported. The elders of the village said that the space that was home to many indigenous Assamese communities had survived many natural disasters, but couldn’t bear the man-made disaster. A villager told The Telegraph, “Nearly 800 families of the village are mostly dependent on agriculture, animal farming and fish mongering. After the blowout, oil is seeping into agricultural fields. Aquatic and domestic animals are dying and poisonous gas emissions are in the air. Our future appears bleak. We fear land will become infertile and water and air impure. What will happen to us and our children?”
OIL had said that reports of five persons passing away due to possible pollution from the blowout were untrue and issued a statement saying that no human life had been lost due to release of natural gas, crude oil spillage or condensate in OIL’s operations during all these years.
The company announced a compensation of Rs. 30,000 to each of the affected families as immediate relief, without mentioning if the compensation was extended to all the 1,610 families. However, locals speaking to The Telegraph said that though they would accept the compensation, they would press for a ‘reasonable amount’. Residents had marched outside the blowout site demanding Rs. 5,000 per day per family until the blowout was contained. In light of the damage from the blowout, locals had observed World Environment Day by planting saplings wrapped in a black polythene sheet to mark a toll on their lives.
The incident has been condemned by the All Tai Ahom Students’ Union as well as the Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuve Hangha who said that they would not allow OIL to resume operations till safety of the people and environment was ensured.
Satyajit Moran, President of the Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuve Hangha told The Telegraph, “Baghjan and Dighaltarang villagers are going through a horrifying experience. Around 800 families are staying in a shelter home. The livelihood of poor farmers and fishermen is threatened. The nature, animals and birds, aquatic life in the Dibru and Dangari rivers, the Maguri Motapung Beel and the Dibru Saikhowa National Park are all threatened. Till safety is ensured, we will not allow exploration of oil. We demand a high-level probe.”
In May, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) had given environmental clearance to OIL for hydrocarbon exploration in seven locations under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park even after opposition from conservationists and locals, Down To Earth had reported. Then, OIL officials had said they would drill 1.5 kms outside the boundary of the national park and use an underground technique for its operations to not upset the ecology in the area.
This isn’t the only time OIL has been caught causing extensive damage due to its operations. Northeast Now had earlier reported how an elephant reserve in the Dehing Patkai forest in Assam was facing disturbances due to the workover operations by OIL.