Guwahati: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) committee headed by former Gauhati High Court Justice Brojendra Prasad Katakey has said Oil India Limited had been carrying out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons without the required consent and environmental clearances.
The committee of eight experts was set up by the principal bench of the NGT on 26 June to study how the blowout of a natural gas well in Baghjan, eastern Assam, impacted local residents and the environment. The two-volume reported has been accessed by ThePrint.
The panel was set up after Kolkata-based activist Bonani Kakkar and the Assam-based Wildlife and Environment Conservation Organisation approached the NGT separately, seeking a probe into the damage caused by the blowout.
The Baghjan Well-5, one of 26 wells in the Baghjan oilfield located near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) in Tinsukia district, suffered a massive blowout on 27 May, leading to a peripheral fire, and a subsequent explosion on 9 June that resulted in fire at the wellhead area.
Over the last 150 days, the fire has continued to burn, causing extensive damage to the villages in the area, affecting people, marine life and wildlife near the installation.
The committee is expected to submit its final report after ‘well-killing’ operations are complete, sources told ThePrint.
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Violation of mandatory authorisations
The expert committee observed that on the day of the blowout and the subsequent explosion, the OIL did not have the mandatory consent “under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and/or the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016”.
The Justice Katakey-headed panel also recommended that the NGT look into the activities of the Pollution Control Board (PCB) of Assam, for granting the “Consent to Establish (CTE)/ No Objection Certificate (NOC) and Consent to Operate (CTO)” for all OIL projects in the state.
Citing the conclusions drawn in its preliminary report, dated 24 July, the committee recommended that the Assam PCB should “be directed to take appropriate legal action against OIL and its officials” for violation of mandatory authorisations when it first started its drilling operations in Baghjan Well-5 in 2006, or on the day of the blowout and the subsequent fire.
The OIL, till date, does not have the required consent for drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in the seven locations under the DSNP area, the panel further stated in the progress report. Consent was granted only for the years 2007-2008, 2008-2009, 2012-2013, 2014-2015 and 2018-2019.
The experts also found that the OIL violated terms under the conditional approval granted by the Supreme Court on 7 September 2017 for the extraction of hydrocarbons around the DSNP. The court had stated that the company should carry out a biodiversity impact assessment before extraction activities around the national park.
“OIL has been unable to carry out the Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study through the Assam State Biodiversity Board as mandated by the Supreme Court, a fact that stands corroborated by the Assam State Biodiversity Board, or by any other agency,” the committee observed.
The report also highlighted that the ambient noise levels in and around Baghjan Well-5 “are well above the permissible standards” and recommended that immediate measures be taken to lower the noise level within the limit prescribed under the Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000.
The panel has recommended Rs 25 lakh compensation to 173 families, and Rs 20 lakh to 439 less-affected families.
‘Well-killing to conclude before Diwali’
In September, about 100 days after the blowout, the OIL managed to divert the uncontrolled release of gas to nearby flare pits, with authorities stating that they had tamed the flame by diverting the primary flare.
They had earlier made two unsuccessful attempts to install the Blowout Preventer (BOP) before finally succeeding the third time on 17 August. A ‘well-killing’ operation was also initiated, but failed to yield results.
Six foreign experts from Singapore-based firm Alert Disaster Control have been working alongside professionals from the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and other agencies. Since Alert’s team left in October, the authorities are now relying on Canadian technology to douse the flare using the ‘snubbing’ technique, and the cost of the operation is estimated to be around Rs 34 crore, according to the OIL.
A team from Piston Well Services Inc. of Alberta, Canada, reached the site Tuesday for emergency ‘snubbing’ operations. While the committee has asked the NGT to direct the OIL to take urgent measures to control the flare, the public sector firm’s spokesperson Tridip Hazarika told ThePrint it is hopeful the well would be ‘killed’ before Diwali.
“The main snubbing operations will commence on 8 November, and we are hopeful that before Diwali, we should be able to kill the well,” Hazarika said.
Asked to comment on the interim report of the NGT panel, the OIL spokesperson said it would respond only when NGT issues directives, as the final report is yet to be submitted.
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