SC reconstitutes panel to assess damage caused by oil well explosion
NEW DELHI: Fifteen months after a massive blowout at Oil India Limited’s Baghjan oil well in Assam resulted in damage to environment and displacement of over 9,000 persons, the Supreme Court on Thursday reconstituted an expert committee to assess the damage caused to the environment and suggest a remedial restoration plan within a month.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) set up 10-member committee headed by Assam chief secretary on February 19 which had members from state and central government departments along with Oil India Limited (OIL) managing director to provide a biodiversity restoration roadmap and an assessment of the damage in six months. The tribunal set up the committee on a petition by activist Bonani Kakker.
The Baghjan-5 oil well blow-out on May 27 2020 was followed by an explosion that led to extensive damage and destruction of the nearby wetlands and the biodiversity of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
Kakker approached the top court for reconstituting the panel to include a panel of independent experts to undertake the damage assessment exercise and recommend immediate steps to be taken.
The new committee replacing the 10-member committee will be headed by justice (retd) BP Katakey and comprise independent experts Wetlands International (South Asia) director Ritesh Kumar, Wildlife Institute of India’s Professor Qamar Qureshi, former deputy director at Indian Institute of Petroleum (Dehradun) GS Dang and soil expert Bedanga Bordoloi.
The names were finalised after the court received suggestions from Kakker and the environment ministry.
The court also directed the committee to report within a month the compensation payable by OIL for causing loss to environment and future work on restoration plan. The Union environment ministry was appointed the nodal ministry for facilitating the working of the committee and OIL was directed to deposit ₹50 lakh for meeting the committee’s expenses. The authorities concerned – state government, OIL, Central Pollution Control Board and state pollution control board – have been directed to extend full cooperation to the Committee. The court directed the matter to be listed immediately within a week after submission of the report.
The presence of the OIL representative in the committee was held to be in direct “conflict of interest” by the top court.
“The presence of representative of OIL as member of Committee will lead to serious conflict of interest and will not contribute to fairness of committee, a bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and Hima Kohli said.
As regards the Committee being headed by chief secretary, the bench noted, “Considering the onerous responsibility of chief secretary, we are of the view that the chief secretary should not be given this task.” The court felt that the Committee had an adjudicatory role that required domain experts with subject knowledge.
OIL represented by additional solicitor general (ASG) Aman Lekhi objected to justice Katakey being on the Committee. In June 2020, the NGT involved justice Katakey to examine the extent of damage resulting from the blowout and identify possible causes behind the incident. The committee headed by justice Katakey gave an interim report on July 24, 2020 that found OIL to be at fault as the requisite permission to establish and carrying out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in Baghjan-5 oil well expired in 2019. These permissions were held necessary and in conformity with the conditions stipulated in the Environmental Clearance granted on May 11, 2020.
The report by justice Katakey said, “On the day of (the) blowout of Well Baghjan-5 on May 27 and explosion on June 9, OIL didn’t have the mandatory consents including the consent to establish or the consent to operate under the Water Act, Air Act and/or the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Trans-boundary Movement) Rules, 2016.”
The justice Katakey panel found that the explosion led to a drastic decline in water oxygen level leading to a high mortality rate of marine life in the Maguri-Motapung wetland and flora and fauna of the nearby Dibru Saikhowa National Park and biosphere reserve which is home to the endangered Gangetic dolphins and a variety of mammals and bird species. The panel told NGT that OIL did not carry out a biodiversity impact assessment before operating the oil well.
ASG Lekhi told the court that OIL seriously objected to the conclusions of the said report as not all members of the justice Katakey Committee did a site inspection. The bench responded that OIL will be heard by the five-member committee, but cannot be on the panel.
Three lives were lost in the incident which required OIL to arrange relief camps for 9,000 persons at a cost of ₹11.17 crore. In addition, the company paid a one-time compensation of ₹30,000 to the 3,000 affected families besides compensation of ₹20 lakh each to 11 families whose houses were burnt. By a letter of December 2020, OIL has accepted its liability to pay a further amount of ₹68.05 crore to 600 affected families who sustained serious or total damage to their houses.
In addition to the now-replaced 10-member Committee, the NGT order of February 2021 formed two other committees. These committees were given the task to fix responsibility for non-compliance with statutory provisions and safety protocols.
The Supreme Court stayed the NGT order constituting the 10-member committee on July 1 and was surprised to find that despite holding OIL prima facie responsible for the damage caused to the environment, NGT proceeded to add OIL representative to the committee set up for fixing accountability on this issue.