Baghjan oil well explosion: Environmentalists fear deadly impact

Environmentalists fear the grassland and the wetland could become a death trap for migratory birds

Baghjan oil well fire
Naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury said the area is known for being home to some very rare grassland birds | Photo: Reporter

The oil well blowout and fire at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district might have a deadly impact on biodiversity since it’s surrounded by water bodies and a national park, fear environmentalists even as the fire continues raging at the site.

The Maguri-Motapung wetland, home to several avian and aquatic species, is located hardly a km southwards from the site. The Dibru Saikhowa National Park, another biodiversity hotspot, is not even two kms away in the north.

Naturalist and retired bureaucrat Anwaruddin Choudhury said that the area is known for being home to some very rare grassland birds. “…an immature endangered Gangetic river dolphin and a particoloured flying squirrel died; the condition of the endangered wild water buffalo is not known, but their grassland habitat already burnt.”

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“The area is known world over for some very rare grassland birds such as Black-breasted Parrotbill, Jerdon’s Babbler, Marsh Babbler, Swamp Prinia and Swamp Francolin. Their grassland habitat seemed to be destroyed but what happened to their nests, as it is the breeding season, is not known,” he told The Federal.

Choudhury, who has authored 28 books and more than 700 articles and scientific papers on wildlife, said that the Baghjan episode is an example of the careless and indifferent attitude of companies towards poor villagers living in the neighbourhood and environmental impact in the surrounding areas.

“Now, the wetland is covered with a layer of oil, probably suffocating many life forms. It is monsoon now and water levels are quite high; this oily layer will enter (I think it already has) Dibru-Saikhowa, and farther down, affect the Brahmaputra river and riverine tracts all along through Majuli to Dhubri. Although the impact in these downstream areas may not be conspicuous, but would be there,” Choudhury added.

He said, “Migratory birds would start arriving from September-end and it is unlikely that the habitat — the grassland and the wetland — would recover by then. It could be a death trap for many migrants.”

Related news: Congress writes to PM Modi seeking probe into Assam gas tragedy

Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden MK Yadava said that Maguri Beel has obviously borne the brunt of the gas-condensate leakage and also the blaze that is still raging.

“A panel is assessing the situation, and water and soil samples of both the wetland and the national park have been sent for testing. We have formed several teams and they are gathering materials from different locations in the affected areas. We expect to get a clearer picture of the damage in the next few days,” Yadava was quoted as saying by The Assam Tribune.

Already, carcasses of a Gangetic river dolphin, fish, and birds have been recovered from the wetland in the last several days since the blowout started on May 27.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India has urged the Assam government to initiate immediate steps to restore the habitats in and around Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguri Motapung Beel. It also requested action against those responsible for the irreparable damage to the environment and people, invoking the relevant provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

Baghjan oil well fire
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan during their visit to Baghjan | Photo: Reporter

On June 14, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan, who visited Baghjan, met leaders of different student organisations and apprised them that the government is taking international help to douse the fire, and constituting an expert committee to study the environmental impact and suggest remedial steps.

Sonowal said that the Union petroleum minister, according highest importance to the Baghjan fire incident, is taking steps to bring in experts from the United States, Australia, Canada and Singapore, to douse the fire.

Speaking about the environmental impact as well as the reported tremor felt around the fire site, Sonowal said that the government is attaching due importance to the phenomena and is all set to constitute a committee of experts from IIT Guwahati, Regional Research Centre, Jorhat, and the Geological Survey of India.

After receiving feedback from the committee, the government would take appropriate, time-bound steps, he said.

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