Assam gas leak: NGT orders OIL to pay Rs 25 cr, forms high-level committee

An oil-and-gas well, owned by OIL, at Upper Assam's Baghjan village caught fire on June 9, after leaking for a fortnight
Assam gas leak: NGT orders OIL to pay Rs 25 cr, forms high-level committee

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) June 25, 2020 ordered for a high-level committee to look into the recent blowout at an Oil India Ltd (OIL) well in Baghjan, Assam. It also asked the public sector company to deposit Rs 25 crore for damages caused.

The committee will have the mandate to examine the cause and damage from the blowout that occurred on May 27. The oil-and-gas well, owned by OIL, at Upper Assam’s Baghjan village subsequently caught fire on June 9, after leaking for about a fortnight.

Several other committees were earlier announced by the Union and state governments to look into the incident, which officials have not been able to bring under control yet. Rain and flooding have made this task difficult, according to the officials.

Two OIL employees were killed in the fire that occurred a day after the company flew in well control experts from Alert Disaster Control Inc. Around 11,000 locals were evacuated and continue to live in relief camps, according to local media reports.

The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung wetland, less than a kilometre away from the site, are both under threat due to accident, according to conservationists and experts.

The NGT bench — comprising of SP Wangdi, a judicial member and S Das, an expert member — said a prima facie case was made against OIL on the extent of damage caused to the environment, biodiversity and public health.

An eight-member committee headed by Justice BP Katakey — a former Gauhati High Court judge who earlier headed an NGT-appointed committee on coal mining in Meghalaya — was formed to probe the incident.

The committee headed by Justice Katakey will submit its report within 30 days after looking into 13 points listed by the NGT order:

  • Cause of gas and oil leak
  • Extent of loss and damage caused to human life, wildlife and environment
  • Damage and health hazards to the public
  • Possible contamination caused to water, air and soil around the oil well
  • Extent of contamination of the Dibru river due to the oil spill
  • Air quality monitoring, along with collecting soil and groundwater samples of the area and testing water from the Dibru
  • Impact on the eco-sensitive Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung wetland zone
  • Impact on agriculture, fishery and domestic animals in the area
  • Any mitigation measures put in place by OIL to offset incidents such as this one
  • Individuals responsible for the fire incidents and the cause of failure to prevent the incident
  • Assessment of compensation for victims and cost of restitution of damage caused to property and environment
  • Preventive and remedial measures
  • Any other incidental or allied issues

OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika confirmed the receipt of the order: “OIL has always respected the NGT. We welcome the order. It will allow us an opportunity to present how we dealt with the situation to the NGT”.

Serious allegations in pollution board’s closure notice

The Pollution Control Board, Assam (PCBA) earlier served a closure notice to OIL to stop all production and drilling activities in the Baghjan oilfield.

The closure notice was withdrawn within three days of its issue and a day after Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal reportedly said authorities needed to be more sensible and cited industries and tea gardens dependent on OIL.

“We withdrew the closure notice after OIL submitted its application for consent to operate and the required fee for the 10 wells,” Y Suryanarayana, the chairman of the PCBA, said on June 24.

The PCBA, in its closure notice, directed the company to do whatever was necessary to extinguish the fire.

The notice alleged a series of serious violations: It said the oil field operated “without obtaining prior consent to establish / consent to operate from pollution control board”.

It also questioned how the installation worked without an effluent treatment plant and said the Maguri-Motapung wetland — part of the eco-sensitive Dibru-Saikhowa National Park zone 500 metres away — was “severely affected” because of the oil field.

Suryanarayana said OIL will add an effluent treatment plant in Baghjan where it has 21 wells. “We can seek environment compensation from them later,” he said, refusing to go into the details of the allegations in the notice.

Assessments by government agencies

A Wildlife Institute of India (WII) preliminary study — cited by the NGT in its order — had earlier noted how the incident “severely affected the health of water, forests and grasslands” in an ecologically sensitive area. The WII is also conducting a detailed assessment.

Around 40 species of mammals, 500 bird species and 680 plant species inhabited the area, the study said.

A high-level committee was announced by Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, while the state government announced at least two committees: One headed by an additional chief secretary and another headed by a senior forest department official.

An agency roped in by OIL is conducting an environmental impact assessment, while The Energy and Resources Institute is studying air quality, noise levels and bioremediation of sludge.

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s North East Institute of Science and Technology in Jorhat, Assam and the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad are carrying out seismological studies.

The Assam Agriculture University will assess the impact on vegetation.

Rains, floods hamper operations

Rains and flooding have hampered operations to kill the well. “The situation is grim,” said Hazarika.

The daily bulletin by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority said 189,314 people in nine districts, including Tinsukia, were affected by floods as of June 25. At least 14 people have died so far due to the floods, which first hit in May.

An OIL statement on June 25 detailed the scenario at the site of the incident.

“After heavy rain for the past three days, the area was badly hit by floods and the site was inundated with flood water,” it said. “The Dangori river has started overflowing. All connecting roads to the site were submerged with flood water,” the statement said.

Photos of the site showed how access to a new Bailey bridge constructed by Indian Army personnel for an alternate route to the site of incident was completely blocked due to floods.

A bridge on an important road to the site of the incident collapsed on June 24. “The bridge collapse has hit our operations. Another bridge which we are currently using is also in bad shape because of the rain and floods,” Hazarika said.

A statement issued by the Centre after a review meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi said well capping operations were scheduled for July 7.

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