Pushpanjali Neog, who was rendered homeless due to the gas well blowout, and presently staying as an inmate at Baghjan Dighal Tarang ME School since May 27. Neog, a resident of Baghjan village, lost a portion of her home to the fire. The fields (pathar), plants and trees all that came in the line of fire were gutted.
"Aami yaat tenuka sob hubida paisu puwa tu...kintu olopman jui karone aamar chinta hoise.. kenuka numabo... aami ketia ghorloi jabo paam.. khaali khabo paale aamak sontust nai." (Though we are getting most facilities.. we are a bit worried about the fire... how long will it take to douse the fire.. when will we be allowed to go back to our homes... mere getting to eat food doesn't satisfy us.)
Baghjan Dighal Tarang ME school, one of the main relief camp is overflowing with more than 2000 villagers from over 534 families housed in this relief camp. Social distancing, which is necessary amid COVID-19, is unimaginable for the camp dwellers.
The inhabitants of the relief camp are provided with food and other basic facilities, but the villagers are tired of living here and are eager to go home. Every other villager at the government relief camp, which was once a school, has a similar story to share. Monalisa Baruah, with a three-year-old son, clung to her arms, complained of bathrooms and toilets at relief camps.
Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha advisor Hemanto Moran said amid the COVID-19 pandemic when social distancing has to be followed, the camps are tightly packed. "OIL authorities and district administration should have ensured the camps not tightly packed. If need more camps should have been opened to ensure the possibility of social distancing."
Pushpanjali Neog and Monalisa Baruah at a relief camp at Baghjan.
The rising numbers translate into cramped space, longer queue at toilets and bathrooms. Baruah, recounting her struggle to secure bathing and toilet in another camp, where they were evacuated after the inferno on June 9, said, "Bathing and toilet had become a distant dream. We lived and slept in the same clothes and unhygienic condition for days."
"How can we live in such conditions? she kept starring with this question, back in Baghjan Dighal Tarang ME school.
Mousami Orang, a class four student in the same school where she is camping said, "As such, there is no problem in the relief camp. However, there is a defining sound 24x7 and it creates a problem while going to bed. We had to leave everything behind in our homes when we fled after a huge sound on May 27," she lamented.
"The condition is better than before with additional temporary make-shift bathrooms and toilets made with bamboos and covered with black colour plastic sheets. But these arrangements cannot buy us the comfort of a home," another woman inmate said.
Temporary bathrooms built at the relief camp.
From three camps on the blowout day, the number of camps has crossed to 14 at one point of time. However, the present active number of relief camps stand to 10, according to a June 17 report compiled by district administration.
According to a source in district administration, the relief camps include Baghjan Dighal Tarang ME School Guijan High School with 2075 inmates, St. Joseph High School with 1063 inmates, Dighal Tarang Gateline LP School with 100 inmates, Bandarkhaite LP & High School with 1500 inmates, No 7 Line LP School with 513 inmates, No 8 Line Catholic Church with 640 inmates, Palong Line LP School & Girls' School & Dibru English Academy & 2 No LP School, Diamuli with 510 inmates, Rupai TE ME School with 350 inmates and Nagamati LP School with 130 inmates.
Blowout - When and How
The "blowout" occurred on May 27 at gas well number 5 at Baghjan oil field in Assam's Tinsukia district, situated near to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park famous for migratory birds Maguri-Motapung Beel. The blast occurred when work-over operations for extracting gas from new sand (oil and gas-bearing reservoir) at a depth of 3,729 metres was on, leaving natural gas and condensate oil to gush out and spill beyond a couple of km, turning the entire area of more than 1.5 km into the gas chamber. The well caught fire on June 9.
(Left) Picture of the blowout, (Right) Fire service personnel extinguishing the fire at gas well 5.
In simple language, a work-over operation is an invasive operation to extend the life of the well and increase its yield.
On May 26, cement plug was laid as per the SOP, an OIL official having knowledge about the operation told this correspondent.
A day later, as the team assigned to replace the wellhead - a component at the surface of an oil or gas well that provides the structural and pressure-containing interface for the drilling and production equipment - took out the blowout preventer (BOP), the gas started gushing out with high pressure.
"The cement plug failed in all likelihood. It can be a human error, technical error, mechanical error or a combination of either," an OIL employee, having years of experience in handling work-over operations, wishing anonymity said.
A sizeable portion of the local population, mostly farmers, lost their homes, vegetation, grazing land and livelihood.
Initially, the blowout spilt gas and condensate oil to hundred feet in the air, spraying the mixture to an area beyond a km, polluting the paddy fields, trees and plantations besides damaging tin roofs. The villagers fled for safety living their livestock behind, and now they are not sure whether they are alive or deal.
On June 9, when the gas well caught fire it spread to an area of over 600 metres and gutted whatever came in its way - houses, trees and plantations.
The fire and the oil spillage damaged crops, houses and whatever came in its way.
Sharing the villagers' ordeal, director of Rupkonwar Jatiya Vidyalaya Hemanto Moran, who is an inmate in one of the camps said, the affected families - mostly farmers, betel nut growers, small tea and bamboo groves planters - lost their means of livelihood including livestock.
"Initially, the sowed paddy fields were affected due to water contaminated with condensate oil. The tea plantations, betel nut trees and other plants started dying a slow death. The fire turned out to be the last nail in the coffin. The incident will have a long-lasting impact on the lives of affected villagers," added Moran.
Another villager, Barua said, the land containment with condensate oil must have turned the land barren and unsuitable for cultivation in the affected area. "Will OIL authorities or the state government excavate the soil and replace it with fertile soil?" a question that remains to be answered.
Highlighting the least that needs to be done, Barua said, "The grazing ground has to be rehabilitated, every standing crop has to be compensated and a fisherman has to be taken under-compensation program till the aquatic biodiversity is restored to a normal state."
The trail of destruction was clearly visible when this correspondent visited the affected region more than once. When The Logical Indian
reached the location the fire and smoke can be seen from a distance forming dark clouds.
"Smell of gas and oil is making it difficult for us to stay. Several persons have complained of irritation in the eye and headache," Hiren Senapati, president of the eco-development committee of Natun Rangagora village said.
OIL lost its two men, both firefighters - Durlov Gogoi and Tikeswar Gohain. They went missing the day fire broke out at the blowout well on June 9 and their bodies were retrieved from a nearby pond the next morning.
On the night of June 10, a day after the blowout gas well caught fire, a couple of villages in the vicinity of the site reported tremors. The tremors continued after regular intervals.
"Mom earthquake my kids started shouting. Everything started shaking from tin roofs to doors and windows. We were frightened," said Purnima Dutta Baruah, a community leader and a resident of Natun Rangagora village said.
Purnima said, the tremors were back, this time a bit more stronger and the shockwaves continued throughout the night at regular intervals. "It was a sleepless night. The walls developed cracks. Similar damages were reported from other houses," she added.
Affected Villagers And Changing Statistics
The exact number of affected villagers is constantly increasing. From 6000 villagers affected on the day of the blast, the total number of affected villagers stood to 11020 persons from around 2000 families on June 13 (4 days after the fire and 2 days after new relief camps opened) and 13030 persons from 2956 families on June 17, according to source in Tinsukia district administration, quoting a report compiled by district administration.
A June 13 report said, the affected villages include - Baghjan revenue village, Dighal Tarang revenue village, Baghjan NC village (Baghjan Karua Basti area, Kochuwani of Baghjan village and part of Korua ward number 2, 3 of Baghjan village, half part of Nagbanshi and Karua Basti, Bejoli Basti area), Rangagora Natun Gaon, Gotong.
"Altogether 3160 farmers have been affected, while agriculture area to the tune of 1210 hectares, and 470 hectares of a small tea garden have been damaged due to the oil spillage and fire," the report said.
"Altogether 14 houses have been gutted in the fire and around 11 houses have been damaged. A total of 8540 persons from approximately 1510 families are inmates in the 13 relief camps," the report added.
Oil India Limited (OIL) spokesperson said the official figure of an affected villager from the office of the deputy commissioner continues to be 1610 families.
Sources hinted that some villagers have shifted to the relief camp to get themselves registered for compensation and the actual number of affected families is much lower than 3000. "However, there is no official word on the exact figure of affected families."
"The Baghjan village, in the eye of the storm, is the most affected village and 650 families of this village are the ones directly affected," Hemanto Moran, the advisor of Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha, said.
Moran said, then there are other families in the surrounding areas like Natun Rangagora Village are also affected, hence it is difficult for them to give the total number of affected families. "However, there are few families, staying in far away from relief camps, not directly affected as per reports. There is an element of politics going on due to compensation involved."
Relief And Rehabilitation
Oil India Limited announced a one-time interim compensation of Rs 30,000 per family.
Talking to The Logical Indian, OIL chairman and managing director (CMD) Sushil Chandra Mishra said, "We have paid a one-time compensation of Rs 30,000 to 1610 affected families as per the list compiled by district administration. The amount was paid through the account of the deputy commissioner."
OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said the survey for assessment of damage, for compensation to the affected villagers, by the committee, constituted by the district administration is in progress. "Our focus has to give the best of relief possible to all the affected persons. All the relief camps are being effectively provided with quality food, mattress, mosquito nets, lighting, toilet, drinking, medicines, and other essentials."
Under OIL's CSR Project Sparsha, the doctors and paramedics have been screening health and providing free medicines to the people in the relief camps. "Over 9000 people in the relief camps have been provided with hygiene kits, sanitary napkins, baby care kits and disinfectants," added Hazarika.
"OIL has detailed an official for each camp to monitor them and a daily reporting is being done to the highest level. All pregnant women and ill inmates are being shifted to OIL hospital and given the best treatment," he added.
Environmentalists, have been criticising the exploration of oil and natural gas so close to the national park and wetland from day one.
Baghjan 5, the oil well that is experiencing the blowout, is next to the Maguri Motapung wetland, an eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park. A paradise for bird lovers, this wetland attracts migratory species such as Ruddy Shelduck, Bar-Headed Goose, Falcated Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon besides being famous for the endangered Gangetic river dolphins, several species of fishes, and other aquatic and amphibians are unique to the habitat.
Three days after the blowout carcass of a Gangetic Dolphin was recovered from the Beel. Locals alleged that the death of a Gangetic Dolphin at the Beel is linked to the pollution due to the blowout.
Guijan forest range officer Jaganath Agarwalla has submitted a report to the Division Forest Officer (DFO) and the Chief Judicial Magistrate through the DFO.
In his report, Agarwalla said the oily water is floating down from the Dighal Tarang area towards Maguri Motapung Beel where we have found Dolphin and some small fishes dead. "I have collected some scum from the Beel for a sample. There is a defining sound emitting from the well site."
"The defining sound, condensate oil spilt in the eco fragile zone beside air pollution due to gas leakage will have a very adverse effect on the environment and the wildlife," Jagannath said.
Diplov Chutia, a local resident has been voicing environmental and wildlife issues said, "The incident has only highlighted the danger such projects pose to the rich bio-diversity and needs to be shut down. We cannot compromise with the environment and ecology for the sake of the economy."
The sprawling Dibru Saikhowa, a national park, is a safe haven for many extremely rare and endangered species of Wildlife. In 1997, Dibru-Saikhowa National Park became the ninth biosphere reserve out of the total over 18 identified till 2017. An identified Important Bird Area (IBA), it is famed for the rare white-winged wood ducks as well as feral horses.
The forest type of Dibru-Saikhowa comprises semi-evergreen forests, deciduous forests, littoral and swamp forests and patches of wet evergreen forests. A total of 36 species of mammals, 104 species of fish, 43 species of reptiles, 105 species of butterflies and above 500 species of birds have so far been recorded from the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Moreover, 25% of India's threatened bird species have been found in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
Public sector giant Oil India Limited ordered a high-level inquiry into the gas well blowout and issued a show-cause notice to the owner of the rig Gujarat-based M/s John Energy Limited.
OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said, the company has set up a 5-member inquiry committee to ascertain the exact cause behind the incident and also, find out whether there was any human error in handling the work-over operations during which gas blowout happened. "A show cause notice has been issued to M/s John Energy Limited."
The notice accessed by The Logical Indian reads, "Prima facie there appears to be gross negligence on your part for failing to follow standard procedure, carry out mandatory checks in compliance with the safety regulations and take necessary precautions to carrying out wellhead operations involving nippling down of the Blowout Precentor (BOP) stack and / or complete failure to recognise a well kick and take timely corrective action, leading to complete loss of gas well control and blow out of the well."
In addition, multiple inquires were ordered by state and centre separately.
Days later, OIL suspended two senior officials from Oil & Gas Production Services (OGPS) and Drilling department. The officers were identified as chief engineer of OGPS Bidyut Pawan Das and superintending engineer of drilling Debojit Das.
Army Comes To Rescue
From controlling the law and order situation to laying a 140-metres long a pontoon bridge, the armed forces has played a vital role.
On June 9, when the gas well caught fire and the villagers turned violent, the army was called in to control the situation.
OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said, the availability of the huge quantity of water 24X7 is the key to the success of the forthcoming operation, and with the gas well catching fire after the blowout, there has been a shift in the strategy. "Hence, the requirement of a bridge, over a natural water body, very close to the blowout well, was need to displace the waterline from new reservoir to the blowout well and serve as an escape route."
"The army, which has the expertise to lay such bridges, complete it in a record time and will be part of an important peripheral support system required for the operation to cap the well and douse the fire," added Hazarika.
Wishing anonymity, a soldier at work said, as we went closer to the well the the temperature shoots up. "However, the army is known for doing the impossible and we are happy we have successfully laid the bridge very close to the fire."
OIL approached a Canadian company M/s Alert Damage Control, known for its expertize in handling blowout wells across the globe, to aid them in capping the well.
Initially three experts were flown in from Singapore and were joined by three more experts, two from Houston in the US and one from Canada.
The Crisis Management Team (CMT) of OIL and ONGCL, joined by an ONGCL team from Vadodara and later by global experts, were battling to control the well for 28 days.
The initial plan to place the blowout preventer (BOP) on the wellhead through a hydraulically driven mechanical transporter was dropped after the gas well caught fire.
Hazarika said, global experts have drawn a detailed plan and the same has been submitted to the ministry. "As per the new plan, a team will approach the wellhead to launch the operation. Accordingly, the way to wellhead is being cleared and the rig structure, partially melted, is being removed," he added.
Hazarika said, the work for a new water reservoir of 12000 KL capacity has been completed. "The preparatory work for a peripheral support system in line with the new plan is in an advanced stage and once things are in place, the operation to cap the well will start."
Assam Pollution Control Board Flip-Flop
On June 19, the Pollution Control Board, Assam issued closure notice to OIL directing it to "close down" all production and drilling operations of all the installations of Baghjan oilfield in Assam's Tinsukia district.
Citing a number of violations by PSU major, PCBA issued the closure notice holding OIL accountable for operating the Baghjan oilfield without the "Consent to Establish and Consent to Operate" permission from PCBA.
"It is observed that you have been operating your Baghjan oilfield activities without obtaining prior consent to Establish/consent to operate from PCB, Assam, which is a serious violation of the provisions of Water Act, 1974 and Air Act, 1981 as well as Environment (Protection) Act, 1986," the order addressed to the Resident Chief Engineer of OIL read.
PCB allegation against OIL included that Baghjan oilfield is located just 500 metres to the Maguri Motapung wetland which is part of the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park which is effected severely due to negligence on OIL's part. "OIL is destroying to aquatic life of the national park and the wetland of endangered species in the name of exploring oil without any mitigation measures," it said.
However, three days later, PCBA has withdrawn the "closure notice" issued to OIL.
"OIL will have to submit a detailed time-bound environmental management plan within fifteen days from the date of issue of this letter for environmental mitigation and extinguishing of fire at the Baghjan Oil Field and act accordingly," the withdrawal notice, signed by a member secretary, read. The notice ordered OIL to submit a Consent to Operate (CTO) for each and every drilling, production, and other installations along with environmental management plan and requisite documents within a month.
The the development came a day after the chief minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal had expressed that he was not happy with the PCBA closure order. "Every major factory of Upper Assam was directly dependent on the natural gas produced by OIL," Sonowal said.
Oil Assets In Assam
The OIL has over 1600 wells in Assam, scattered across eight main oilfields and several smaller satellite oilfields, out of which over 400 wells are active. This, added with ONGC asset in Assam, which is mainly spread across Sivasagar and Jorhat district, puts Assam on a higher place in the list of states which produces oil and gas.
According to sources, OIL produces around three million metric tonnes of crude oil annually in Assam.
In Baghjan Oil field alone, OIL has 22 producing wells, 18 oil wells, and four gas wells. These include BGN5 well which is under fire since June 9, two weeks after blowout occurred.
Lack Of Experts
Despite having massive asset and presence in Assam, OIL had to call in experts from ONGCL. First, they roped in experts from Nazira station of the ONGC and later flew in experts from Vadodara station of the ONGC, underlining the fact that despite being India's one of the biggest crude oil exploring company, they lack the expertise to handle the situation of this magnitude.
Admitting the lacklustre, exploration director and development director of OIL, Dr P Chandrasekaran, who flew in from Delhi, said, "It is true we do not have the national level experts needed to handle such a crisis. We are strengthening our Crisis Management Team (CMT) to match the potential of that of national companies."
Nothing more than a human and environmental disaster, leaving a question, do we need development and economy at the cost of ecology and environment?
The debate will continue. But as of now, the fire continues to rage with the same fury. Experts believe that the damage caused to ecology, environment and bio-diversity is irreversible.
The villagers, who are the worst affected, continue to stay in the tightly packed relief camps. The jittery images of woman and children stacked in small classrooms, with hardly possibility of social distancing amid the pandemic, says it all.
According to the latest updates, the Baghjan gas well site has been flooded after heavy rains, and all work to douse the fire has been stopped.