The Assam oil well fire was an accident waiting to happen

The fire at Baghjan has contaminated water bodies, devastated tea plantations, and forced residents to be sent to relief camps. According to environmental experts, the damage caused to the Maguri-Motapung wetland, and the adjoining Dibru-Saikhowa National Park may never be compensated

Rohin Kumar
| Updated: June 15th, 2020

The Oil India Officials are claiming that the fire at the Baghjan oil well in Tinsukiya, Assam, has been controlled to a great extent. As per the officials, the fire is now confined only to the well’s orifice.

But there are many unresolved aspects of the disaster, which haven’t been yet addressed. Like every time, efforts are on to cover up institutional accountability. This brings us back to the same question – for how long will the environmental safety standards continue to be sidelined and when will the environment be able to get the top priority in our list?

Jayant Bormuroi, the senior manager (public affairs) at Oil India, has told news agency PTI about the fire having been controlled. “We have declared the one-and-a-half-kilometer hemisphere area from the well as a red zone from the security point of view,” he said.

The company had informed that experts from the US and Canada are being summoned. Three experts from Singapore’s Alert Disaster Control have been working to check the leakage of gas. It is reported that the leakage of gas had started about ten-twelve days before the final blowout in the well. The first blast (which was not as impactful) had occurred on May 27. This has been confirmed by Oil India. On June 7, experts from Singapore had arrived.

Two persons — Tikeswar Gohain and Durlov Gogoi — had lost their lives in the Baghjan blowout. Based on their long-time association with the Oil India, Tikeswar will be given a compensation of Rs 1 crore by the company and Gogoi, Rs 60 lakh. The company will also ensure pension and other facilities to the families.

Gogoi was the goalkeeper in the Oil India’s football team. He had represented Assam in several national and state competitions. Meanwhile, 7,000 people have been displaced due to gas leakage. They have been kept in 12 relief camps. The standard operating procedures of coronavirus prevention, such as social distancing, are difficult to be implemented in such relief camps.

The Oil India officials have said they would give Rs 30,000 to the aggrieved families and offer a job to one person per family. The Dibrugarh Saikhowa National Park has also sustained great damage. Aquatic organisms, birds and animals have suffered terribly. At present, there has been no statement from the government or the company to compensate for the damage caused to the environment.

Many animals weakened by the exposure to toxic substances have perished in the past two weeks

Unresolved questions

The experts have raised serious questions on the working procedures of Oil India. For instance, how did the blow out occur in a producing unit (where production was in progress). Normally, the possibility of the blast occurs during drilling. This indicates a certain degree of mismanagement on the part of Oil India.

The second big question is that Oil India had entrusted the maintenance of oil wells to a company named John Energy. It is alleged that the company lacked engineer level technical staff. Prima facie, why did Oil India have to outsource its oil wells to another company? Have the environment and lives of people been put at risk under the guise of cost-cutting?

An employee of John Energy, who was present on the spot, has shared an essential tip with Inside North East, a major news portal in the Northeast. On the condition of anonymity, he said: “A day before the blast, the process of cementing was going on. The well was to be cemented at a depth of 3,987 metres. Pipes are usually taken out 48 hours after the process of cementing. But only after 6-7 hours, the cementing engineer had ordered the pipes to be removed.”

According to that employee, even after that there wouldn’t have been any explosion had the Oil India engineer not further withdrawn the blowout preventer (BOP). “If this preventer were removed after 48 hours, perhaps Baghjan could have been saved from such a great tragedy,” the employee said.

In this regard, we tried to contact the official spokesperson of Oil India, Tridiv Hazarika, several times, but he did not consider it appropriate to talk to the media.

Senior journalist and environment activist Apurva Vallab Goswami has lodged a complaint against John Energy and Oil India at the Baghjan police station. Quoting media reports, he said that the disturbing pictures of the death of dolphins, fish and turtles are being seen on social media. Not only has the Dibru Saikhowa National Park been damaged, but also this damage may be unprecedented. He also had mentioned in his complaint that the condition of relief camps is pathetic. At the time of coronavirus pandemic, there are no necessary precautions like social distancing being observed.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has ordered an inquiry. The Prime Minister has talked of extending all possible help to the chief minister of Assam. As per a tweet by the PMO, the central government is monitoring the situation closely.

Remembering Dikom

This is the second major disaster in the history of Oil India in the past fifteen years. In 2005, there was a fire in the Dikom oil well. Even then, hundreds of families had to flee from the Dikom tea gardens and adjoining villages. It took 20 days to control the Dikom fire. Technical experts had to be summoned from Houston’s Boots and Coots. Fifteen years later, things are looking the same. To date, the company does not have its own experts’ panel that can offer immediate help at the time of the disaster.

“Our country is not yet well-equipped to tackle well blowouts and well fires due to the lack of expertise as well as facilities,” wrote Joydev Lahiri, the chief manager of Oil India. in the annual booklet of the FICCI’s Chemical (Industrial) Disaster Management on December 16, 2019. This statement was typed in bold red font.

Six months later, the company had to face a similar accident. The company knew clearly that it did not have experts, but it still did not have a backup plan.

Heavy damage to Dibru-Saikhowa National Park

As per the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas: “Oil India has taken the services of an accredited agency to assess the environmental impact in the vicinity of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri Motapung Beel.” The name of the agency had not been revealed.

The Dibru Saikhowa National Park, spread over 650 sq km, and the Maguri Motapung Beel, are included in the extreme environmentally-sensitive areas. Around 480 species of birds are found in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and in Maguri Motapuong, there is a presence of 293 species. The Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve has been included in the world’s 35 most sensitive biosphere reserves. These areas are most frequented by ornithologists. Not only is the reserve important in terms of aquatic organisms, but is also known for its grasslands.

As per the environmentalists, the incident of Baghjan can affect the environment in three phases. In the first phase, air, water and soil are damaged. For example, the fire fumes, poisonous hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide can cause respiratory problems to the birds. Oil leakage in water causes oxygen deficiency and creates a threat to aquatic life. In the second stage, toxic leakage enters the body of organisms. Hydrocarbons form polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and affect the entire food chain. The loss of the third stage appears over a long period of time. It thereupon affects the reproduction of certain types of plants or organisms.

On May 11, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and climate change had permitted the very Oil India to drill at seven new locations in the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

A twist of environment clearance

Not long ago, the central government had issued its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020. It was said that the industrial processes in India need to be simplified. As per the new draft, companies can start their projects without any environment clearance. There is a plan to increase the category of projects in which it will not be mandatory to adopt the process of a public hearing. The companies will even have the freedom to submit their own environmental assessment report every year. Earlier, it was mandatory to carry out this process every six months.

There are countless instances where there has been a confrontation between the natives and the environmental activists regarding the mapping of nature-wise sensitive areas by the government. For instance, the ministry does not count the arid grasslands of Gujarat and Rajasthan as naturally-sensitive areas. As per the new draft of the ministry, these areas can now be thrown open to the corporate sector. The recent chemical leakage in Visakhapatnam is an example.

Interestingly, the ministry had sought suggestions from the general public on the draft amid the lockdown. It was only after protests by the former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the civil society, the ministry had extended the deadline for receiving suggestions by three months.

Referring to the recent incidents, senior Supreme Court spokesperson and the convener of Prabajan Virodhi Manch, Upmanyu Hazarika, said: “The expansion of coal mining activities at Dehing Patkai was approved a few days ago. Recently, the region had witnessed a terrible accident. They had identified a large part of the national park as a reserve. This means that they can expand industrial activities there. We need to understand that Dehing Patkai or the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is the only tropical rain forest ridge in Assam. It is a very sensitive area. The expansion of drilling in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park area without environment clearance is disturbing.”

Rohin Kumar is an independent journalist

Also read: Assam oil well fire rages on