Baghjan blowout

A gas well explosion that is now an ecological nightmare

Print edition : July 02, 2021

National Disaster Response Force personnel participate in a rescue operation at the site of an oil well that exploded at Baghjan, Tinsukia district, Assam, on June 10, 2020. Photo: PARTHA SARATHI DAS/AP

A patch of burnt paddy field owing to the fire at Baghjan oil field in Tinsukia district on June 11, 2020. Photo: PTI

An inquiry report lists the massive damage to ecology and wildlife caused by the five-month-long blowout and explosion at OIL’s gas well at Baghjan in Assam in 2020.

A blowout, explosion and fire lasting more than five months, from May 27 to November 15, 2020, in the natural gas well of Oil India Limited (OIL) at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district has resulted in the loss of an estimated 55 per cent of the biodiversity in the affected Dibru-Saikhowa landscape. As many as 1,632 hectares of wetland, 523 ha of grassland, 172 ha of area covering rivers and streams, and 213 ha of forest were damaged to varying degrees.

The explosion gave rise to a mushroom cloud that rose 2,500 metres into the sky yielding 0.1 million cubic metres of natural gas equivalent to 0.9 kilotonnes of trinirotoluene (TNT). The flame temperature was at least 1,200 0 centigrade.

The blowout and fire claimed three human lives and killed three animals listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and more than 29,000 scheduled and unscheduled wild animals and organisms.

These facts have come to light in the “Report on Damages to Environment, Biodiversity, Wildlife, Forest & Ecology on account of Blowout and Explosion at OIL Well number BGN-5, Baghjan, Tinsukia”, submitted recently by the one-man inquiry committee headed by Mahendra Kumar Yadava, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam.

Sounding a caution, the probe panel, set up by the Assam government, has said that “crop grown on contaminated soil may appear to be normal and healthy in appearance, but might be internally, accumulating harmful chemicals. Such crop on consumption would pose serious risk of cancer amongst the consuming population.” Unless the yield is very well tested in standard laboratories for contamination of chemicals and harmful substances, and proved fully that no such chemicals are found, the crop should not be considered fit for consumption, it says.

The probe panel compiled the report on the basis of subsidiary reports prepared by researchers and experts of Cotton University, Guwahati; the Wildlife Institute of India; the Bombay Natural History Society; the College of Fisheries, Raha; the Assam Agricultural University and several other institutions.
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The report states that the Environmental Clearance (E.C.) the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued for the project on November 1, 2011, “was found to be faulty” as it mentioned that there were no national parks and wildlife sanctuaries located within 10 km of the project site. In reality, the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Bherjan-Borjan-Podumoni Wildlife Sanctuary are within a 5-km radius of the drilling site.

The report further says: “The two EIA [Environment Impact Assessment] Reports submitted by M/s Oil India Limited were found wanting in quality and content and did not stand up to the mark required for proper ecological handling of such a sensitive project next to a national park and a biodiversity hotspot. It appears that the EIA reports were not evaluated, and the findings/data supplied were not examined critically.” Apparently, there was no prior approval under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, for the petroleum mining lease granted to OIL whereas the lease area covered partly the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Bherjan Borjan Podumoni WLS.

The probe panel has stated that the MoEF&CC seemed to have “forgotten its own notification” declaring Dibru-Saikhowa as a biosphere reserve and “missed the knowledge of existence of the Dibrua-Saikhowa National Park declared in 1999”. It has recommended that the MoEF&CC “may be burdened with heavy penalty” if no amendments were made to the E.C. issued in 2011. “While the EIA report clearly mentions that there exists a national park and a wildlife sanctuary in the immediate vicinity of the project neither the M/s OIL nor the MoEFF&CC have the knowledge of it,” the report says.

Damage to ecosystem, wildlife and biodiversity

The report states that the sound of the blowout impacted the whole of the national park and the Bherjan and Podumoni parts of the wildlife sanctuary. “The landscape is rich in biodiversity, ecology and contains fragile ecosystems that harbour some of the most endangered, rare, vulnerable, threatened and near-threatened wildlife,” it says.

“The sound emanating from the flame was characteristic of jet planes taking off or flying past with breakneck speeds during wartime. People also complained of very intolerable noise,” the probe panel found.

The Maguri Motapung Beel, a wetland, was the most impacted of all the ecosystems. Almost 70 per cent of the earthworms in the Maguri grasslands and condensate affected areas are estimated to be dead, the report says.

Birdlife International, a global partnership of non-governmental organisations, has recognised the wetland as Important Bird Area. It is in the buffer zone of the Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve to the south of the national park in the upper Brahmaputra basin of Tinsukia district. The report states that about 95 per cent of 12,000 human population that inhabits the ten adjoining villages of the wetland are directly dependent on its different bioresources for their livelihood and rearing of livestock.

The blowout, explosion and fire directly impacted 40 animals belonging to different classes/order, genera, families and species listed in different Schedules of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 . Habitats of these animals and their young ones were disturbed and larvae, eggs and nests were damaged. The actual visual count of dead animals listed in all the Schedules was found to be 91. This includes a Gangetic river dolphin and two hoolock gibbons listed in Schedule I.

The probe panel estimates that about 64,000 kg of condensate oil containing heavy hydrocarbons might have fallen in a three-km radius of the blowout on the south side of the site over an estimated area of 589 ha. Nearly 24 ha around the flame was severely burnt and 102 ha partially burnt. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), many of which are carcinogenic, and organic substances were found in high levels in the area, the report states.

It notes: “Openbill stork population may be at risk due to high molluscs death in the areas. Moths and butterflies have suffered severely in the area due to constant deaths because of the flame. Moth and butterflies have been seen largely as singletons. Of odonates, damsel flies have suffered the worst. Lack of odonates can adversely affect butterfly populations. PAH concentrations and low DO [Dissolved Oxygen] levels would adversely [affect] populations of fish fingerlings, tadpoles and other aquatic insects which are prey/food of odonates.”
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The disaster and the continuing impact of the heat and sound until the flame got extinguished has adversely impacted the herpetofauna, the reptiles and amphibians of a particular habitat, too. The Baghjan area has been a death trap within 1 to 1.5 km of its radius for many animals. PAH, oil spill, low DO and pH levels have impacted fish populations too. There has been a sizeable decline in the fish catch. Several of the rare and ornamental fish populations of Maguri are at risk. A detailed assessment is required, says the report in three volumes.

Most bird species, other than 15-20 most common birds, have been seen in single counts only following the disaster. As many as 53 per cent of bird species showed up only as singletons. Maguri Motapung Beel and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park are unique bird habitats. Bird richness of grasslands has declined by 59 per cent and that of the wetland by 85 per cent. Since there are many threatened, endangered, critically endangered and rare birds inhabiting these parts, a systematic study is immediately required to evaluate the loss and work on a long-term basis, Mahendra Kumar Yadava has suggested in his report.

The report notes: “Post-blowout, the Gangetic river dolphin population has taken a hit. From an estimated population of 28-34 dolphins earlier, the current estimates point to not more than four dolphins. The underwater sound pollution is possibly impacting the dolphins adversely. The death of a dolphin is confirmed to have been caused by organic chemicals. The hoolock gibbons at Barekuri were adversely impacted by the oil spill. They refused to eat for at least two days. One mother gave birth to a stillborn baby, and she also died after a gap of 25 days. Most large mammals have moved out of the area, and a few that got trapped could have ingested organic chemicals while grazing and drinking water.”

Physical properties of the blowout, explosion and the flame

The flame was supersonic, with an average flame height of 108 m and mean mass flow rate of 343.50 kgs/second of natural gas and condensate in a single-phase flow at oil-head pressure of 5,100 pound per square inch. The flame was 12m wide on an average at middle point. The Mach number estimated for the supersonic flame was estimated to vary from 3.1 to 8.5.

The flame plume carried enough heat in the atmosphere to raise the temperature from 8 oC to 34 oC heat in the surrounding areas at a height of 1,000m. The blowout explosion was estimated to be of 3.9 magnitude on the Richter Scale. The flame and the associated turbulence could cause random seismic quakes of value 1.3 magnitude or higher, “causing damage to houses in the area”, the report says. The hot gushes of air blasts emanating from the site could raise human temperature from normal to 111.2 oF. The temperature of the surrounding areas rose higher than normal by 5-10 0C.

Monetary valuation of the ecological damage

The report describes the Baghjan blowout to be a “catastrophic and worst-case blowout”. The probe panel has recommended that The Public Liability Insurance (PLI) Act, 1991, and the Environment Relief Fund need to undergo a rethinking in respect of large ecological disasters as “both were severely found wanting to meet even the basic requirements in the Baghjan blowout ecological disaster”.

The inquiry committee has estimated the damages to be Rs.25,000 crore. Estimated carbon earnings were valued at Rs.18,234 crore (during restoration) and this resulted in a net liability of Rs.6,800 crore over a period of 10 years, the report says.