Oil India Limited (OIL) is in the process of abandoning a gas well that blew out and caught fire in the Baghjan Oilfield in Assam’s Tinsukia district after “killing” the well and dousing the blaze that raged for almost six months, but little has been done to address the environmental impact of the disaster that has ravaged one of India’s finest wetlands .
Gas well number 5, which blew out on May 27, spewed copious amounts of condensed oil and gas into the Maguri Motapung wetland and surrounding river tributaries of Dibru and Lohit. Abandoning the well involves plugging the well for good and stopping production from it. The blowout was plugged and fire doused on November 15.
Evidence has emerged from a multidisciplinary committee, appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and headed by Prof Bhagawat Pran Duarah of the department of geological sciences at Gauhati University, that fish and mollusc diversity has declined alarmingly in the Maguri Motapung wetland. The fish have been found to have high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a toxic group of chemicals.
Fishermen have had to stop fishing for three months, and surrounding villages have been soaked by water laced with oil and chemicals, which are likely to leave an impact on the ecologically fragile region in the long term. The wetland is also home to several species of birds, including some found only here, and the rare Gangetic dolphin.
Other species have been impacted as well. A dead hoolock gibbon baby, believed to be a case of stillbirth, was found on September 28 in Purani Motapung village near the wetland. Investigators found that the mother was compelled to feed on contaminated leaves and plants apart from being directly exposed to xenobiotic pollutants (synthetic chemicals). The mother also died on October 27, but test results on her viscera are still awaited.
After the Baghjan blow-up, investigators also found that four of nine calves born to domestic cows in neighbouring villages perished; of the four, two were still-born.
Investigators also found that important fish species such as Ompok pabo, Nundus nundus, Ailia coilia, Pseudeutopius atherinodes, Channa aurantimaculata and Danio rerio have been completely wiped out from the Maguri-Motapung wetland.
The findings suggest a long-term impact of the oil well blowout. The Wildlife Institute of India warned in a July report to the Union environment ministry: “The impact is significant and will have long-term effects, as many of these pollutants will leach into the ground and contaminate groundwater. Long-term restorative efforts are needed for cleaning up these pollutants.”
Investigators have underlined that the monitoring of migratory birds will be crucial for gathering more evidence on the environmental impact of the oil well disaster. Their numbers, behaviour and foraging habits could signal what lies ahead.
Locals said migratory bird diversity and arrivals have definitely been affected. “By November, this area is full of migratory birds. This time not even half of them have arrived. The diversity is also less,” said Imon Abedin, a zoology student.
His father Jonyal Abedin, who runs an eco-tourism facility, said: “We saw only one or two (Gangetic) dolphins till now. We have to study how migratory birds have been impacted by the blowout. The impact will be long-term but can gradually be offset if there is no more disturbance.”
A seismological and geophysical investigation by the Geosciences and Technology Division of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s North East Institute of Science and Technology also found that the blowout site was the source of the high frequency disturbances observed at seismic stations nearby. Some may be very disturbing to local people, the report added.
NGT’s intermediate report, dated October 31, pointed to several illegalities surrounding OIL’s Baghjan gas well and called on the Assam Pollution Control Board to take legal action against OIL and its officials for violations of the mandatory requirements under the Air and Water Acts. OIL has also been unable to carry out the Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study through the Assam State Biodiversity Board, as mandated by the Supreme Court.
OIL violated provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 1994 under which it is mandatory to obtain environmental clearances for any onshore drilling projects that commenced before 2006, the multidisciplinary committee said in its report.
“We have started implementing the well abandonment policy which means we will never again produce gas from the well. A number of safety and technical issues need to be addressed before the abandonment is complete and till then the location will be a hazard zone. Cement plugs will have to be installed at various locations and depths,” said OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika, claiming that the company has cleaned up the oil condensate in the area.
“Nature also helped us. The heavy monsoon rains helped wash away some of the oil. We are also undertaking bio-remediation (use of microorganisms to control pollution) in water bodies. About ₹37 crore worth of compensation to local people has also been disbursed through the DC’s (deputy commissioner’s) office. An evaluation by the DC’s office and NGT’s final verdict is awaited,” he added.
“Environmental disasters will continue to be normalised and not accounted for if we do not pin clear liability, allow projects to only safeguard their profits and offer small change in the name of compensation,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research.