Baghjan blowout

Report on Baghjan blowout says it may take more than 10 years for even a partial recovery of the destruction caused to the landscape

Print edition : July 16, 2021

The Baghjan oil field engulfed in fire in Tisukia on June 9, 2020. The fire lasted for more than five months. Photo: PTI

A patch of paddy field burnt from the fire at Baghjan oil field, in Tinsukia on June 11, 2020. Most of the families in and around the blowout site have lost their primary sources of livelihood. Photo: PTI

A report on the impact of the Baghjan blowout in Assam details the all-round loss to people living in the area, and to animal and plant species as a result of blatant violation of norms close to a biodiversity hotspot. And there are more than 200 wells in the region.

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 blowout and fire claimed three human lives, including that of a young engineer and two firemen of OIL. Three animals listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and more than 29,000 scheduled and unscheduled wild animals and organisms also perished in it.

Worse, most of the families in and around the blowout site have lost their primary sources of livelihood. Nearly 95 per cent of the 12,000 people that inhabit the 10 adjoining villages of the wetland are directly dependent on its bioresources for their livelihood. Nearly 3,000 families were displaced and around 11,000 residents were housed in shelters set up in schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “Report on Damages to Environment, Biodiversity, Wildlife, Forest & Ecology on account of Blowout and Explosion at OIL Well number BGN-5, Baghjan, Tinsukia”, giving these details and more, was submitted recently by the one-man inquiry committee headed by Mahendra Kumar Yadava, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam. The committee compiled the report on the basis of reports prepared by researchers and experts at 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 probe panel, set up by the Assam government, has cautioned 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 tested in standard laboratories for contamination of chemicals and harmful substances, and it is proved that no such chemicals are found, the crop should not be considered fit for consumption, it says.

The 1,654-page report in three volumes says that “of all the onshore blowouts, the Baghjan blowout could be the largest and biggest onshore blowout so far in the world”.

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 ᴼ centigrade. The blowout led to the release of 17.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

First-hand account

Describing his first-hand experience of the devastating fire that spread in the area around the gas well, Mahendra Kumar Yadava notes in the report: “As we reached nearer the site, the monstrous flame started getting ‘revealed’ in its full form. From the riverside, I could approach almost 700-800m, and it was quite an experience—the heat, the fire spreading to other areas radially, and houses burning and bamboo groves and trees on fire. It was kind of a line of fire, but all was not visible from the riverside alone. I could feel the heat from the fire very much even from the boat.”

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-Borajan-Podumoni Wildlife Sanctuary are within a five-km radius of the drilling site.

The report also says that “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 despite the lease area covering partly the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Bherjan-Borajan-Podumoni WLS.

The committee 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 Dibru-Saikhowa National Park declared in 1999”. It recommends 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.

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Asked for a comment on the report, Tridiv Hazarika, OIL’s spokesperson and Deputy General Manager (Corporate Communications, Corporate Social Responsibility) told Frontline that “OIL is presently studying the report and will take time to respond”.

Damage to ecosystem

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. The waterbodies and impinging grasslands are home to several flora and fauna, including the wild buffalo, the barking deer, and a variety of avifauna. Birdlife International, a global partnership of non-governmental organisations, has recognised the wetland as an Important Bird Area.

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 report describes the rich biodiversity around the blowout site as follows:

“The next nearest biodiversity hotspot is the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve spread over 350 to 650 km to the north, northeast and northwest of the blowout. The nearest point of the park lies within 900 m of the blowout ground zero. In between the park and the blowout area lies the Lohit branch of the mighty Brahmaputra that has a confluence with Dangori river and later Dibru river, largely known as Dibru or even Dangori river. The river starting from Sadia Dhola bridge on the upper reaches to the Bogiebeel on the downstream forms a rich habitat of the Gangetic river dolphins.

“These three unique ecosystems put together account for 36 mammalian species, 500 avifauna, including migratory birds, 11 species of turtles, 9 species of lizards, including two species of monitor lizards, 18 species of amphibia, 104 species of fish and 23 species of snakes, 104 species of butterflies, and 26 species of molluscs besides supporting astonishingly rich flora, including 28 tree species, 26 species of shrubs, 2 species of parasitic plants, 17 species of grasses, 16 species of aquatic plants, 3 species of marshy plants, 4 species of climbers and scandents, 5 species of canes, 13 species of orchids and 6 threatened medicinal plant species. The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is also famous for feral horses.

“The next important conservation regime is the Bherjan-Borajan and Podumoni Wildlife Sanctuary. While Bherjan, being closest, is at a distance of 6 km from the ground zero and lies to the south of the Motapung Maguri Beel, Podumoni is at a distance of 8 km to the west of the blowout site. These areas are rich habitats of butterflies and there were resident troops of hoolock gibbons (the only ape found in India) in the past. The gibbons also have now a broken habitat, and a few [were] found outside the sanctuary areas (other than Borajan). While Borajan still supports hoolock gibbon populations, one such known location outside the protected area, but very close to the blowout site, where troops of hoolock gibbons, numbering 19 individuals, have been residing for long is Barekuri Gaon panchayat falling within 2-3 km south of the blowout site.”

Noise pollution

The report adds that the sound of the blowout impacted the whole of the national park and the Bherjan and Podumoni parts of the wildlife sanctuary. “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 people affected from the noise are spread within a radius of 40 km of the blast site; those within a five-km radius were acutely affected by noise levels that were more than 55 decibels (dBA) on 24x7 basis. “Similarly, all those who worked or lived within 700 m of the blowout site were exposed to extreme noise of more than 75 dBA. These are all breaches of the permissible limits under the EPA [Environment (Protection) Act], 1986,” the report says.

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Significantly, Rule 5(5) of the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000, prescribes that the peripheral noise level of a privately owned sound system or a sound-producing instrument shall not at the boundary of the private place exceed by more than 5 dBA the ambient noise standards specified for an area. “The flame at Baghjan …is a perfect privately owned sound producing instrument owned by M/s OIL put to noise since 9th June 2020 and producing more than 5 dBA sound in excess of the ambient noise standards,” the report says.

Damage to plant and animal life

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.

“The OIL spill seems to have affected the plant community, especially agricultural and horticultural crops, adversely. It has been reported that flowering and fruiting in several species have been impacted, as the new flowers appear to be falling off from the plants prematurely. Crop production may eventually decline.”

The livestock also appears to be showing impacts of PAH contamination, which is evident from the large number of stillbirths in all domestic animals as reported by the field survey teams.

The report 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. Moths 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.” There has been a sizeable decline in the fish catch. Several of the rare and ornamental fish populations of Maguri are at risk.

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.

Following the disaster, most bird species, other than 15-20 most common birds, have been seen in single counts only. As many as 53 per cent of the bird species showed up only as singletons. 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.

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With regard to the Gangetic river dolphin population, the report states that “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.”

The probe panel’s estimation of 55 per cent loss of biodiversity is derived from the finding by ecological assessment groups that against a recorded checklist of 1,235 species, they “encountered 511 numbers of uniquely identified species in various classes/orders/genera of animals” after the blowout.

Ecosystem restoration

On the challenges of restoration of the Baghjan ecosystem, Dr Narayan Sarma, a wildlife biologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Biology and Wildlife Sciences at Cotton University, says: “First, we need to make sure that no further leakage occurs from other oil wells within the vicinity of the Maguri Motapung Beel area. The second challenge is the lack of baseline data of most of the flora and fauna of the area affected by the blowout. We may have to select the diversity of flora and fauna of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Bherjan-Borajan-Podumoni Wildlife Sanctuary as reference sites. The third, and perhaps the most important challenge, is to engage all the stakeholders, the Forest Department, the local community, conservationists and OIL etc., in restoring Baghjan.”

He explains that different species take different trajectories of recovery. For instance, in some species, he says, it may take time to manifest some of the negative impacts of the environmental perturbation of such scale.

Narayan Sarma underlines the need for a periodic monitoring of the recovery of the ecosystem and their components. “So far, it is mostly a passive restoration approach or ‘natural regeneration’ approach of wait and watch. The water quality should be monitored regularly. In case of severely impoverished fauna, we may have to reintroduce the lost species into the ecosystem. Although we may see species populating the sites we need to be careful to observe their composition as invasive species or very common species may flood the area giving an impression of the recovery,” adds the wildlife biologist.

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The probe panel estimates that it may take at least 10 years for the most damaged ecosystem to come back to 70-80 per cent of its original state. Thereafter, this could be left to heal on its own. Flowing river system may get restored faster, say, a five years’ time period, unless the bottom of the river is very badly impacted, says the report. Forest/grassland and soil ecosystem also would take up to 10 years to heal fully to get back the old productivity level of the natural system. “In agricultural/plantation system which are artificial, it may take 3-5 years only,” it says.

Physical properties of the blowout

The flame was supersonic, with an average flame height of 108 m and mean mass flow rate of 343.50 kg/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 0C to 34 0C heat in the surrounding areas at a height of 1,000 m. 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 temperature of the surrounding areas rose higher than normal by 5-10 0C. Condensate oil spread over an area of 13.85 sq km, of which 7.97 sq km got burnt almost fully.

The probe panel has recommended that the Public Liability Insurance 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 report says: “It cannot be denied that this accident of blowout had brought more than [a] thousand families to the streets, and about 300-400 families lost whatever they owned in terms of physical possession near the site of the blowout. It was traumatic, and no amount of compensation could buy them what they lost.”

Villages in the immediate vicinity of the BGN-5 well site include Baghjan, Natungaon, Dighaltarang, Guijangaon, Daisajan, Bandarkhati, Gotongaon, Barekuri, Kordoiguri and Doidam. The people are largely small and marginal farmers or share-croppers. Paddy is the main crop, and people have in their homestead land betel nut plants, paan climbers, and vegetable gardens. At least 13 varieties of paddy are under cultivation. The villagers also grow a variety of agricultural, horticultural and spice crops. Tea plants are also commonly found in almost every household. “While most area within 2-3 km radius is occupied by either the waterbodies, rivers or grasslands on the one hand, and tea garden on the other hand, the farmlands are very few. Most people have occupied the non-cadastral government land and doing agriculture on those land parcel,” the report says.

People also rear cattle, pigs and fowls such as chicken and ducks, and fish in ponds. The population on the banks of the Maguri Motapung Beel especially subsist on fishing. 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 has resulted in a net liability of Rs.6,800 crore over a period of 10 years, the report says.

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“The amount to be realised from the polluters should not be less than Rs.6,800 crore or Rs.680 crore per annum for 10 years from M/s OIL and their owner MoPNG [Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas]. It has to be noted here that MoPNG and the other government-owned oil PSUs own together a share of 86.44 per cent in OIL. As the Government of India is the owner, it can be deducted that the MoPNG may be liable up to 86.44 per cent and for the rest, OIL may foot the bill from its own resources, which comes to 13.56 per cent.” That is, the Government of India’s share comes to Rs.587.79 crore, or Rs.580 crore a year, and OIL’s comes to Rs.92 crore a year. “However, it does not mean that OIL has to pay all,” states the probe panel, putting the onus on the Government of India to pay all ecological dues, as the owner “is fully capable of paying”.

The Baghjan blowout is the second one in Tinsukia district. The first blowout occurred at OIL’s Dikom oil field on September 13, 2005, the fire of which lasted 20 days. The report says that there are more than 220 exploratory and development wells in the region surrounding Baghjan. Many of the 40 exploratory drilling sites within the North Hapjan-Tinsukia-Dhola area are in the production phase now. Recently OIL was granted permission for drilling seven sub-surface sites in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park from three pads using extended drilling technology. The entire landscape is virtually sitting on a volcano of ecological disasters such as the Baghjan blowout.

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