Explainer: How foreign experts got injured at Baghjan oil well and what happens to efforts to plug blowout now

The blowout happened at the well on May 27, and it has been on fire since June 9. An explosion on Wednesday left three foreign experts injured. They were trying to plug to blowout.
Employees record an explosion which occurred near Oil India Limited’s gas well, at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district, on Wednesday.(PTI Photo)
Employees record an explosion which occurred near Oil India Limited’s gas well, at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district, on Wednesday.(PTI Photo)
Updated on Jul 23, 2020 08:24 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByUtpal Parashar | Edited by: Amit Chaturvedi

Amid expectations that Oil India Limited’s (OIL) natural gas well in Assam’s Baghjan, which suffered a blowout on May 27 and caught fire on June 9, would be plugged anytime soon, three foreign experts involved in the efforts sustained minor burn injuries while working at the site on Wednesday.

According to OIL officials, the experts from Singapore-based Alert Disaster Control were trying to remove a spool from the well head when the incident happened. They were provided treatment at a hospital in Dibrugarh and are out of danger. The work on capping the blowout is expected to resume from Thursday.

The well, which is among 17 gas wells and five oil wells in Baghjan oil field in Tinsukia district, had a blowout - uncontrolled release of crude oil or gas when pressure control systems fail - while a work over operation was on to produce gas from a new reservoir at a depth of 3729 metres.

While efforts were on to plug the blowout and foreign experts were brought in, the well caught fire on June 9 killing two firefighters and damaged 13 houses in the vicinity. Around 2,000 families residing nearby were evacuated and houses in relief camps where they have been staying since.

Initially, OIL had stated that it would take about a month to control the fire and plug the blowout, but flooding caused by heavy rains affected work at the site for several days delaying operations.

The well, which spewed oil condensate and subsequent fire, was feared to pose threat to ecology and environment of the area as it was located close to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the eco-sensitive Maguri Mottapung Wetland, an important bird habitat.

Studies by several agencies are underway at Baghjan at present to gauge the damage caused to the area by the blowout and fire. Last month, National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered formation of an expert committee to probe the blowout and subsequent fire and assess the damage caused to human life, wildlife and environment because of it.

How the foreign experts got injured?

Though the fire at the well, which initially spread to nearby areas, has been under control, it has been on fire since June 9 while tasks needed to be completed to douse it continue.

To enable people to work around the edge of the well and close to its head, a water umbrella is sprayed at very high speed, which minimises the fire at the mouth of the well (while it continues to rage few feet above) allowing people to reach the well head.

“Today an important operation was underway to open and remove the spool, a connecting equipment between pipes, from the well head. Two flanges on both sides are opened and the spool is lifted,” OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said on Wednesday.

“While they were doing it, the mouth of the well suddenly caught fire and it spread laterally for 3-4 feet. And since the experts were working within that range, they got injured. While two of them escaped with minor injuries, one tripped and fell and the uncovered portion of his hand caught fire,” he added.

All three were immediately evacuated from the site by other personnel present and provided medical attention. They were they taken to a burn care unit of a private hospital in Dibrugarh where they got proper treatment. The experts have been discharged and are now at OIL’s hospital in Duliajan.

According to Hazarika, one of the experts sustained around 20 per cent burn injury on his hand, another had 12 per cent injury and the third sustained eight per cent burn injury. All three are expected to resume work soon.

What happens to efforts to control the fire?

The fire incident that caused injuries led to suspension of work at the site on Wednesday. But OIL officials say work is likely to resume from Thursday and the blowout will be plugged soon.

“The operation will go on as per schedule. On Wednesday, the damaged spool was removed before the experts got injured. The next task is to reinstall the blow out preventer (BOP) on the well head. It’s a three-tonne equipment which has to be fitted on top of the existing undamaged spool, which is now exposed,” said Hazarika.

“It’s a very coordinated operation. We hope to start work on it on Thursday morning and fix it after 3-4 hours. Once the BOP is placed, it is described as capping of the well. That will be followed by killing of the blowout,” he added.

Hazarika informed that capping doesn’t mean that the gas will stop coming out of the well and the fire will be extinguished. A valve on the BOP will be injecting a fluid inside the well, which will neutralise the pressure of the well slowly and push the gas back from the well into the reservoir.

“The operation between capping of the well and killing the blowout can take 2-3 days. The gas is being drawn from a depth of around 3.5 km so the fluid has to fill up that entire column,” he said.

The entire operation should be over by the end of this week, which would complete almost two months since the blowout happened.

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