Devastating gas well blowout in India's Assam state under control after more than five months

The well suffered a devastating blowout on May 27, 2020, causing an uncontrollable release of natural gas.
The well suffered a devastating blowout on May 27, 2020, causing an uncontrollable release of natural gas.PHOTO: @BAEKHYUNEESYOJA/TWITTER

NEW DELHI - Like many others in Natun Gaon, a village in the state of Assam in northeastern India, Mr Bhupen Borgohain heads out to the local wetlands to fish every year after the monsoon waters recede.

Fishing is a critical source of income for locals in the village.

This year, however, a dejected Mr Borgohain, who is also a rice farmer, told The Straits Times on the phone that he has not been able to catch any fish.

Natun Gaon is around 1km from a gas well at the Baghjan oil field, managed by the government-owned Oil India Limited (OIL). The well suffered a devastating blowout on May 27, causing an uncontrollable release of natural gas, including in its liquid condensate form. This hazardous material was dispersed over a wide swathe, including aerially, causing large-scale damage to the ecology as well as displacement of thousands of locals.

Some people had to leave after their houses were gutted when the well caught fire on June 9. After struggling to put it out for more than five months, officials from OIL said they had "completely doused" the fire and had "killed" the well on Nov 15. This was achieved after a snubbing unit was flown in from Canada this month.

The unit was required to lower pipes down as far as 3.6km into the earth against the raging pressure of the gas. This had to be done to pour a brine solution at the source of the leakage. Mr Tridiv Hazarika, the OIL spokesman, said pouring in the solution from the top of the well was impossible because of damage to pipes near the surface caused by the fire.

After two such failed attempts to cap the well, officials managed to divert some of the gas to a nearby production unit and flare part of the gas away from the site of the blowout on Sept 13. This extinguished the fire at the blowout well.

"Currently all parameters are under control. There is no wellhead pressure at all, neither any leakage of any gas. We have also started the final operation of abandoning the well," Mr Tridiv Hazarika, the OIL spokesman, told The Straits Times.

A team of officials from the Singapore-based Alert Disaster Control has also been helping out and are still at the site, wrapping up final operations. The incident caused the death of three OIL employees - two fire-fighters in June and an electrical engineer in September. Three representatives from ADC also suffered burn injuries in July.

Locals and environmentalists are meanwhile still counting the cost of one of India's longest and most challenging industrial disasters. Mr Borgohain said that the blowout had destroyed the paddy shoot he had readied in his farm and estimated his total loss at around 250,000 rupees (S$4,530).

He has received 75,000 rupees as interim compensation, part of the 370 million rupees that OIL has so far handed out. The walls and floors of his house cracked from the impact of the gas well blowout that was accompanied by an incessant rumble and seismic activity. "There was the constant sound of the fire raging," said Mr Borgohain, using an Assamese onomatopoeic term ('horhorani') to describe it.

"We do not know if the vibrations came via the atmosphere or the earth but the house would make a sound - gail, gail, gail," he added. "It was so scary for the kids, even the adults could not bear it."

The disaster has also hurt tourism in the area, which relied on local flora and fauna as well as migratory birds that fly in this time of the year with the onset of winter. The surrounding landscape of Baghjan includes the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung wetlands, home to several critical species.

Mr Niranta Gohain, who owns a tourist resort around 5km from the well, said the disaster devastated the local ecology, killing and chasing out animals, leaving his business severely impacted. "Because of the fire, which was visible from several kilometres away and the pollution, migratory birds have not come so far this year. This could further cut down the number of tourists," he said.

He received his first batch of visitors since May this year on Nov 17. "I had a turnover of around five million rupees annually, but this year I have lost out anywhere between 2.5 to three million," Mr Gohain told The Straits Times.

A July report from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said that the oil spill and subsequent fire devastated around 70 hectares around the site. It also resulted in leakage of harmful chemicals, the toxicity of which, it added, "is known to persist in aquatic and soil systems for long, leading to prolonged ill effects on all life forms".

It also highlighted shortcomings of companies operating oil and gas wells in Assam in managing oil spills and emergency response readiness. This was part of an ongoing assessment mandated by the National Green Tribunal.

"This incident should open our eyes to a larger concern - the fact that we are operating so many wells over there. So there should be a comprehensive mitigation plan of their impact," said Professor Qamar Qureshi, one of the authors of the WII study. In January, the federal government, however, diluted environmental norms that govern clearance of hydrocarbon exploration activities, including doing away with public hearings.

Prof Qureshi described the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, which hosts highly endangered bird fauna, as one among the few habitats in India that are a unique combination of wet grasslands and woodlands. "All that is left (of such terrain) is less than 5,000 sq km in India and that too in disjunct patches and severely impacted, which is a cause of concern," he added.

A similar incident occurred at another OIL well in Assam in 2005, which took nearly a month to contain and required international help. "All these agencies should have a plan in place. I understand it is a very complex and technically challenging process but so what? You should have a contingency plan," Prof Qureshi told The Straits Times.

Mr Hazarika refused to comment on the report. "We will respond to the final remarks of the NGT committee. We have the answers against all the issues flagged in the interim reports but beyond this I cannot say anything as the matter is sub judice," he said.