Assam gas leak and fire: Yet another case of procedural lapse

A lack of standard operating procedures for handling hazardous materials, no proper training is prevalent in several industries

By Parth Kumar
Published: Thursday 11 June 2020
An alleged miscalculation over the amount of pressure of the gas aided by the removal of the blowout preventer led to the uncontrolled release of natural gas Photo: OIL India / Twitter

Assam is a state with a lot of oil and gas reserves. A number of oil and gas wells are found in the state’s biodiversity-rich areas. A blowout occurred in a gas well of government-run Oil India Limited (OIL) located at Bhaghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district on May 27, 2020.

John Energy Ltd, a Gujarat-based firm, was conducting operations in the well under the supervision of OIL. The well is in close vicinity to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motapung wetlands, areas rich in biodiversity and wildlife.

The well reportedly began emitting condensed oil and natural gas, two days after the leak started. The droplets of condensed oil settled on surfaces in a larger area around the oil well. This included surfaces of nearby water bodies.

Around 650 families, or 2,500 people, were initially evacuated from nearby areas and shifted to relief camps.

A crisis management team reached the well and had begun taking precautionary measures by pumping water continuously through a casing valve into the well head, according to a June 1 press statement from OIL.

They said three global experts (Boots and Coots International Well Control Inc, Alert Disaster Control Inc and Wild Well Control Inc) were contacted and their offers of action plans were being examined.

Three experts from Alert Disaster Control, a Singapore-based firm, subsequently reached the site.

The well caught eventually caught fire as OIL teams conducted clearing operations on the site, at 1.14 pm on June 9. The fire spread 500 metres around the well, burning everything in its vicinity.

The fire spread more towards the Maguri-Motapung wetlands, in the opposite direction of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. If the fire spread towards the national park, it would have resulted in the loss of more wildlife.

One major risk could be the effect of this fire — if it grows further — on other oil and gas wells in the same oil field.

Two firefighters died at the site while undertaking cleaning operations on June 10. Four individuals — two from OIL, one from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and one other working under a contractor — were injured as well.

A drone was used to see the impact of the fire around the well and locate the bodies of the firefighters, later recovered by disaster management personnel, according to an official who visited the site.

The fire fighters reportedly jumped in a pond to save themselves, but found it difficult to swim because of the oil content in the water. They allegedly drowned in the pond.

OIL has not officially released details on how the firefighters died. Around 7,000 have been evacuated from nearby areas, according to the official.

“Our representatives are part of a larger committee formed by the government. This committee is regularly visiting the site and trying to provide assistance in the best way possible,” said a state pollution control board official.

How did the gas leak occur?

There has not been an official clarification from OIL over the reason behind the leak yet. Inside the approximately 3,900-metre-deep gas well, another reserve at a depth of 3,700 metres was reportedly being explored.

A workover rig was being built and interventions were made at 3,700 metres. The blowout preventer was removed during this process.

An alleged miscalculation over the amount of pressure of the gas aided by the removal of the blowout preventer led to the sudden blowout and uncontrolled release of natural gas.

An oil and gas drilling expert said conditions because of the nationwide lockdown in May led to there being no experts on site to monitor operations. National or international experts usually monitor such operations.

The lack of safer and more appropriate technology for such operations may also have been a reason for the blowout, according to the expert.

An internal enquiry by OIL is still under way. The above findings can be confirmed only after findings are shared with the public.

How did the gas well catch fire?

OIL — in their press release — did not cite a clear reason for the well catching fire. The only thing mentioned by OIL was of the clearing operations being carried out when the well caught fire.

Rising temperatures on June 9 — unlike previous days — along with flammable gas in the air was cited as a possible reason. There is, however, no clarity yet on the exact reason.

Loss of biodiversity

The leak of condensed oil to several landscapes in surrounding areas may have led to a loss of biodiversity in the area.

Several birds and a flying squirrel died because of the leak, according to naturalists. A picture of a dead dolphin in the Dibru river — close to the gas well — was widely shared on social media. “The carcass of the dolphin was sent for an examination to identify its cause of death,” said an official.

It is ironic that areas rich in biodiversity are the ones that are rich in fossil fuel reserves as well. Uncontrolled demand for these fuels to run metropolises and industries often leads to the destruction of natural habitats for plants, animals, birds and marine life.

A clear estimate of the loss to biodiversity in the area will be revealed once deeper investigations occur.

What is amiss?

In the past few months — as the lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is gradually removed in phases — there have been several accidents in industrial and production units, especially facilities that handle hazardous materials.

The Visakhapatnam gas leak in Andhra Pradesh, fly ash breaches in Singrauli and Sonebhadra power plants in Madhya Pradesh, the explosion at Yashasvi Rasayan Pvt Ltd in Gujarat and a few others are incidents that claimed lives and destroyed the ecology around them.

These incidents reveal several procedural and safety gaps in facilities.

Some of the key points that emerge from such incidents are:

  • There is lack of updated standard operating procedures (SOP) for handling hazardous materials
  • Even if there are SOPs, operators are not well-trained to follow up line-by-line. They are probably not made aware of the magnitude of accidents and their impacts
  • Machinery infrastructure in facilities lack maintenance: A detailed maintained procedure needs to be put down and the operators and workers should be made aware of the consequences of faulty maintenance
  • Lack of preventive gear for workers who conduct risky operations is another huge challenge
  • Technologies often used in these facilities are not the most updated ones with respect to safety concerns. Equipment and machinery below a certain grade should be unacceptable in delicate facilities. The government should facilitate this as much as possible
  • The appointment of a disaster management unit is a must in every facility which deals with such substances and materials
  • A clear accountability framework should be well-established in advance for such facilities so concerned individuals are aware of their responsibilities
  • Human lives and surrounding biodiversity are not taken seriously. The impact on biodiversity is often ignored after accidents
  • Measures need to be taken to secure lives of people in surrounding areas

“A proper mechanism needs to be developed in high-risk facilities which focuses on bringing down the possibility of such accidents to zero,” said Nivit Kumar Yadav, head of the Industrial Pollution Unit at Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

Such incidents will keep occurring unless mandated mechanisms are put in place and are strictly adhered to, he said.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.