Assam: Delay in plugging oil well blowout threatens lives, ecology

Oil India Limited (OIL), on Friday said it will provide an immediate financial relief of Rs 30,000 to each of the over 1,600 families affected by a major blowout from a oil and gas well in Assam

oil well blowout, Assam, protests, gas leak, oil leak
The Assam forest department has constituted an expert committee comprising government officials and scientists to assess the impact of the blowout. Photo: Partha Sarathi Das

For the villagers living near the site of an oil well operated by Oil India Limited (OIL), the yet-to-be plugged gas blowout raises multiple questions.

The blast which occurred on May 27 continues to leak oil and gas since then putting the lives of humans as well as wildlife in danger.

“This has become dangerous for us. We don’t know what will happen to our future if it continues to be like this. Some of the people have developed health issues as well. We want this to be stopped so that we can live here,” Binita Deka, 40, told The Federal as she staged a protest on Friday (June 5) along with other women of her locality.

oil well blowout, Assam, protests, gas leak, oil leak
Villagers staged a protest on Friday to stop oil and gas drilling near Dibru Saikhowa National Park. Photo: Niranta Gohain

More than 2,500 people in the surrounding areas have been evacuated and placed in relief camps.

“The gas and oil that continues to leak from the site has already damaged the surrounding and killed the grasslands and trees. Some of the domestic animals have died,” Binita said.

While being harmful to humans, the leakage posed a threat to the wildlife as well.

Maguri-Motapung wetland, a famous ecotourism spot, located towards the south of the site, is not even a kilometer away from the blowout spot.

Dibru Saikhowa National Park, another biodiversity hotspot is also located nearby.

oil well blowout, Assam, protests, gas leak, oil leak
A man holds a dead snake, which was killed during the oil well blast at Baghjan in Tinsukia district. Photo: Partha Sarathi Das

Already, an endangered river dolphin was found dead along with a large number of fishes in the water bodies nearby.

“The things don’t look good at all with the continuous leakage of gas and oil. It has already spread to the nearby agriculture fields. Children are having breathing problems in the neighbourhood even though the families have been evacuated. Many complain of several headaches. The domestic animals have also suffered. We have found dead snakes and birds in the nearby areas,” Niranta Gohain, an environmentalist from the locality told The Federal.

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Gohain said that if the burst pipes are not sealed, the damage can be even more deadly.

“If this continues, I can’t even imagine the situation. The constant sound that is coming from the site is also causing disturbances to the avian species in the area,” said Gohain.

Various local bodies have already sent a memorandum to Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal demanding strict measures to avoid this kind of situation in future and demanded that the OIL should stop further oil exploration and drilling in eco-sensitive and fragile biodiversity in Assam.

They also demanded an investigation to prosecute the responsible officials.

oil well blowout, Assam, protests, gas leak, oil leak
The blast which occurred on May 27 continues to leak oil and gas since then putting the lives of humans as well as wildlife in danger. Photo: Partha Sarathi Das

“Urgent clean up of the village areas, water bodies and air contaminated by the oil spill. OIL should be held accountable for social impacts and irreparable loss of biodiversity,” read the memorandum.

Meanwhile, the Assam forest department has constituted an expert committee comprising government officials and scientists to assess the impact of the blowout. The committee will also suggest measures for immediate necessary action and it will submit the report by June 10.

“Its (blowout) impacts on environment, forests, wildlife and ecology need to be assessed immediately in order to protect habitat and entire biodiversity of the national park including humans and their livestock within (forest village) and in the fringe area of the national park,” said a top official of the forest department.

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The OIL authorities, however, said it will take another few days before they can control the situation.

Meanwhile, on Friday (June 5), oil exploration major, Oil India Limited (OIL), said it will provide an immediate financial relief of ₹30,000 to each of the over 1,600 families affected by the blowout.

The decision for giving financial support to the affected families at Baghjan comes two days after the opposition Congress had urged the Union Petroleum and Natural Gas minister Dharmendra Pradhan for an interim relief to protect the environment and address the livelihood issues of the local population.

“The OIL will be providing an amount of ₹30,00 to each of the impacted families as an immediate relief. The list of beneficiaries with names and bank account details will be prepared by the district administration,” the public sector undertaking said in a statement.

It was decided at a tripartite meeting held on Friday at the office of the Tinsukia deputy commissioner with representatives of Baghjan Gaon Milan Jyoti Yuva Sangha and senior officials of the OIL.

Though the number of beneficiaries were not mentioned in the statement, the company had earlier said that around 1,610 families were evacuated from the nearby affected areas and housed in four relief camps.

Maguri-Motapung wetland, a famous ecotourism spot, located towards the south of the site, is not even a kilometer away from the blowout spot. Photo: Partha Sarathi Das

The OIL said, the “well is flowing gas uncontrollably”, while all safety and security measures are being monitored continuously to protect surrounding villagers and their properties.

“Protection of the environment would be paramount while carrying out the well control operation…Items like breathing air cascade and H2S (Hydrogen Sulphide) detection required for blowout control activities are being mobilised,” it added.

The OIL also said the arrival of three experts from the Singapore-based Alert Disaster Control has been delayed due to formalities related to COVID-19 pandemic. “Alert Disaster Control will reach Duliajan late evening on June 7, 2020. The delay in their arrival is due to COVID-related clearances at Singapore,” it added.

Quoting Alert Disaster Control Managing Director Michael E Allcorn, the OIL said the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore has issued a one-time “exceptional clearance” for the chartered aircrafts landing and take-off from Singapore, and the corresponding arrival in Guwahati around 2 pm on Sunday.

The OIL also said its operations were affected due to protests staged by local people in front of Baghjan early production set-up installation, but the agitation has now been withdrawn after meeting with the Tinsukia DC.

Meanwhile, the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas Amar Nath inspected the adjacent Dibru Saikhowa National Park along with officials from the Forest Department and officials of the PSU to find out any damage caused due to seepage of oil and gas.

(With inputs from agencies)

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