Devastation from north-east India gas well fire still felt five months on

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

Like many others in Natun Gaon, a village in the state of Assam in north-eastern 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 located around 1km from a gas well in 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 - including aerially - over a wide swathe, causing large-scale damage to the environment. Thousands of locals were also displaced.

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.

"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," OIL spokesman Tridiv Hazarika told The Straits Times.

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

Locals and environmentalists are, meanwhile, still counting the cost of one of India's longest and most challenging industrial disasters.

Mr Borgohain said the blowout had destroyed the paddy shoots he had readied at his farm and estimated his total loss at 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 Mr Borgohain's house cracked from the impact of the 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 at 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.

A massive fire engulfing the Baghjan oil field on June 9, following the gas well blowout on May 27, in India’s north-eastern state of Assam. The blowout resulted in hazardous material being dispersed over a wide swathe, causing large-scale damage to the environment. It also displaced thousands of locals. PHOTO: IANS

A July report from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) said the oil spill and subsequent fire devastated an area of about 70ha 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".

The report 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.

Professor Qamar Qureshi, one of the authors of the WII study, said: "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."

In January, the federal government had diluted environmental norms that govern clearance of hydrocarbon exploration activities, including doing away with public hearings.

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 declined to comment, describing the matter as "sub judice".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2020, with the headline 'Devastation from north-east India gas well fire still felt five months on'. Print Edition | Subscribe