100 days and counting: Baghjan oil well fire continues to burn

Commerce Minister Patowary has recently said it might take another eight weeks to douse the fire

Baghjan
Smoke billows from a fire at Baghjan oil field in Tinsukia district of Assam | File Photo: PTI

The massive fire that erupted at an oil well at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district on June 9 continues to burn even today, despite numerous attempts of dousing it, displacing around 3,000 families residing in the area.

At least three individuals working at the site have died, the recent being on September 9 when a 25-year-old engineer lost his life after falling off while working. Two firefighters had died on June 9 when the well caught fire.

Since the blowout, efforts to douse the fire continue without success.

They had once come close to douse the fire but it didn’t work at the last moment. Though the blow out preventer (BOP) stack over the wellhead was placed properly on August 17, the operation had to be suspended following rupture of a casing valve the next day. The BOP is a very heavy metal cover weighing several tonnes that is placed at the mouth of any gas or oil well to stop leakage of the fuel from under the ground.

Following that, Assam Commerce and Industries Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said it might take another eight weeks to douse the fire. He said a team of experts from Canada with modern equipment is on their way to Baghjan to kill the well using ‘snubbing technology’.

“After carrying out preparatory works, the Canadian experts may take six-eight weeks to plug the gas leakage and douse the fire,” the minister said on September 3. Already a team of experts from Singapore-based Alert Disaster Control have been working at the site.

“The Oil India Limited (OIL) experts and engineers are also working to control the well at least temporarily by diverting gas flow through a diverter and then generating natural gas through two parallel lines,” Patowary said during the Autumn session of the state assembly.

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The oil well first developed leakage on May 27 and has been emitting gas and condensate since then. It later caught a massive fire on June 9 causing much damage to the area. It has been burning continuously since then.

Government data suggests around 3,000 families have been shifted to 14 relief camps and OIL, along with the state government, is providing relief to them.

Threat to environment

The fire poses a major threat to the environment. The Maguri-Motapung wetland, known for avian and aquatic species, is located less than a km towards the south of the site. The Dibru Saikhowa National Park, another biodiversity hotspot, is also located within 2 km towards the north.

A Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report has said the potential of oil blowout and oil spill-like disasters in the vicinity of the Dibru-Saikhowa National park and similar ecological sites will be detrimental to the conservation value of this unique ecosystem.

Established in 1982, the WII, an autonomous body under the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change, is an internationally acclaimed institution that offers training programmes, academic courses and advisory in wildlife research and management.

Related news: 3 foreign experts injured in explosion at Baghjan oilfield

The report said due consideration needs to be given to this threat for future development. It said the spill has resulted in mass mortality and severely impacted the environmental condition, resulting in debilitating conditions for species to survive.

“The toxic fumes and oil coating has universally affected flora and fauna. The contaminants and oil continue to be released in surrounding areas and immediate steps are needed to contain this spill over. The toxins released are known to have long-term persistence in soils and sediments, which will not only affect current life conditions, but due to sustained release over a long period, pose a serious health risk for a longer term,” the report said.

Observing the ecological disaster caused by this incident, the proposed oil exploration and development in Mechaki, Mechaki extension, Baghjan and Tinsukia Extension PML (Petroleum Mining Lease) needs to be reassessed, since this is the habitat of critically endangered species of this region, it added.

HC seeks reply from Govt

In a major development, the Gauhati High Court has directed the Centre, Assam government and OIL to file replies on a PIL against the Centre’s approval to the PSU major for drilling seven wells inside Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, which is adjacent to the blowout site.

The PIL was filed jointly by advocate Mrinmoy Khataniar and mountaineer Amar Jyoti Deka. A bench comprising Chief Justice Ajai Lamba and Justice Manish Choudhury on August 17 directed the respondents to file their affidavits by September 21 and adjourned the case till September 30.

The bench also considered a PIL by another advocate as both were filed on the same issue.

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“By virtue of this petition, legality and validity of the environmental clearance/approval dated 11.05.2020 (Annexure-I) granted by MoEF&CC to M/s Oil India Limited for extension drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations under Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) area has been challenged,” the order said.

The HC has asked the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Assam’s Department of Forest and Environment, State Board of Wildlife and OIL to file their replies in this regard.

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