Assam oil spill: Amid fumes and tremors, 10k people in 12 relief camps wait to go back home

Hindustan Times, Guwahati | By
Jun 22, 2020 07:13 AM IST

His family and few dozen others were shifted to a nearby school, turned into a relief camp, 1.5km away from the well.

Babul Moran has shifted his “residence” three times in the last 26 days. He was forced to move from his home in Baghjan village of Assam’s Tinsukia district on May 27, the day a natural gas well of Oil India Limited (OIL) located around 700 metres away had a blowout.

Workers build a structure near the gas well blowout site in Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district.(PTI)
Workers build a structure near the gas well blowout site in Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district.(PTI)

His family and few dozen others were shifted to a nearby school, turned into a relief camp, 1.5km away from the well. On June 9, the well caught fire, and claimed lives of two firefighters. The fire soon spread to nearby houses, fields and the Maguri Motapung wetland a few hundred metres away.

With the threat of it spreading further, the 26-year old and his family, along with others, were shifted to another camp 15km away from the well. Two days later, on June 11, OIL personnel were able to contain the fire. Moran and his family again moved back to the relief camp in the school, where they have been staying since.

“We have been provided with adequate facilities at the camp. But the sound from the well, which is like a huge storm, has been continuing since May 27. Since the fire started, we have been experiencing tremors as well and it is very unnerving,” said Moran.

Moran’s plight is shared by hundreds of families in Baghjan and nearby villages. According to Assam government, nearly 10,000 people are now based in 12 relief camps, waiting for the blowout to be plugged. Around 15 houses have been gutted by the fire.

“Our house was located barely 50 metres away from the well. The fire has destroyed the house, all our belongings, a small tea garden spread over 12 bighas (around 4 acres) and a vegetable garden located 500 metres away,” said Rupam Moran, a Baghjan resident who too has shifted residence thrice.

Since May 27, gas and oil condensate released from the blowout has polluted the area. The carcass of a Gangetic dolphin with its skin peeled was found in the Maguri wetland. When the well ignited, it spread to the important bid nesting site, killing fishes, frogs, insects and forcing birds to leave nests with eggs.

“When the blow out happened roofs of houses, tress and water bodies in the area got covered with an oil-like layer. When the well caught fire, it affected flora and fauna in Maguri as well,” said Binanda Hatibaruah, a prominent birding tour guide.

On June 11, two days after the fire started, several local nature lovers and three experts from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) went nearly 700 metres inside Maguri, and saw the damage to the area first-hand.

“Besides the local bird species, Maguri is a nesting site for many migratory birds. This was the breeding season for many birds, because of the oil layer on the wetland and the grassland where the nests are getting burned, they have left. We saw burned insects, dead frogs and abandoned nests,” said Hatibaruah.

An environment impact assessment of the area is being done by several agencies on the request of OIL. On Friday, Pollution Control Board Assam (PCBA) sent notice of OIL asking it to close operations at all its 21 gas and oil wells in Baghjan oil field citing violation of norms and threat to humans and environment. OIL is planning to contest the notice in Gauhati High Court.

The Baghjan well was producing 100,000 standard cubic metre per day (SCMD) of gas at a depth of 3,870 metres. The blowout happened when workover operations were underway to produce gas from new sand (oil and gas bearing reservoir) at a depth of 3,729 metres.

Workover is an intervention in an existing oil or natural gas well that requires invasive techniques like wireline, coil tubing or snubbing.

On June 1, OIL issued a show cause notice to the company conducting the workover operations at the well under supervision of OIL when the blowout happened. An inquiry committee had also been set up. On Wednesday, OIL suspended two officials for their role in the blow out.

According to a retired OIL official, who did not wish to be identified, the head of the well was being repaired while the workover operation was underway, which is the normal practice. The blowout preventer (BoP) -- a specialised valve or mechanical device used to seal, control and monitor oil and gas wells -- installed in the well was removed when the gas started leaking, resulting in the blowout, according to the retired official.

While six foreign experts at the site have expressed confidence about controlling the fire and capping the well safely, the operation requires a large amount of water, installation of high discharge pumps, and removal of debris. All these could take nearly four week, OIL officials said.

In September 2005, a similar fire broke out at an abandoned oil well of OIL at Dikom in Dibrugarh district. It needed expertise of foreign specialists and took over a month to bring under control. “There are few methods to control a blow out. First the area near the well is cleared of all debris. One of the oldest techniques is to carry out a blast at the well so that there is lack of oxygen and gas (or oil) in the area and the fire gets doused,” said a retired oil drilling expert who asked not to be named.

“Another method is to drill another well or wells near the site and connect them to the blow out well allowing the gas or oil to get diverted. Another option is to put a new blowout preventer,” he added.

Protests and blockades by local groups have affected gas and oil production of OIL. Since May 27, when the blow out occurred, the company has suffered cumulative production loss of 8013 MT crude oil and 10.24 MMSCM of natural gas, according to OIL officials.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to control the fire and plug the blowout. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the situation at Baghjan on June 18 and assured Centre’s full commitment to support and provide relief and rehabilitation to affected families. According to a release by the PM’s office, operations at the well are being executed as per schedule, and the blowout is proposed to be capped by July 7.

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    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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