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Assam oil well fire claims 2 lives, Baghjan villagers protest ‘lack of prompt response’

A massive fire broke out at Oil India’s oil well at Baghjan in Tinsukia Tuesday in which two firemen died. Authorities say it would take 4 weeks to tame the blaze.

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New Delhi/Guwahati: Two firemen of Oil India Limited (OIL) were found dead at the site of a massive oil well fire in Baghjan Oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district Wednesday morning.

Durlov Gogoi and Tikeswar Gohain were assistant operators at the fire service department of the company. They went missing after the oil well caught fire Tuesday. The bodies were recovered by an NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) team.

“They were missing from the site since Tuesday after we tried to control the fire. The NDRF found their bodies today. The exact cause will be ascertained only after a postmortem,” Oil India spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika told ThePrint.

On Tuesday evening, the Oil India released a statement, claiming there was no casualty apart from one firefighter from the ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd), who sustained minor injuries during efforts to control the blaze, which Oil India said could take as long as four weeks to put out.

Also read: 10 people die in Vizag chemical leak — here are 5 gas leak accidents in India

‘Situation was dangerous and tragic’

A fire broke out at the oil well (number 5) at Baghjan Oil Field Tuesday afternoon, days after a blowout took place.

Following the blowout on 27 May, the OIL had said gas had “uncontrollably” been leaking from the plant.

“While the clearing operations were on at the well site, the well caught fire,” the OIL statement stated Tuesday. 

Ajay Gogoi, an eyewitness, told ThePrint a loud explosion was heard Tuesday and the sky turned dark immediately. “As soon as people saw the fire, they panicked. Villagers started fleeing, leaving behind their livestock and their belongings. Houses caught fire. The situation was dangerous and tragic,” he added.

On 8 June, a team of experts from a Singapore-based firm, M/s Alert Disaster Control, had visited the well site “for preparation of the plan of action”.

Although the OIL in its statement Tuesday listed options presented by the experts to curb the leak, an employee of the company told ThePrint “lack of adequate immediate response” led to things getting worse at the oil field.

“Lack of clarity on what was going on in the gas leak, led to this. This is like a Chernobyl kind of disaster,” said the OIL employee, who didn’t want to be named. 

At a press conference Tuesday, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal urged Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to bring in the Air Force to assist the efforts to contain the fire. 

“All state govt officials, military, DGP of police, NDRM, are working to get the situation under control. Our priority right now is the safety of the locals,” he said.

Sonowal also said he called up Union minister for petroleum and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan and apprised him of the situation. 

ThePrint contacted Pradhan’s office, but his staff said he isn’t available for a comment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, Wednesday assured Sonowal of all possible help to the victims of the massive fire.

Also read: Fire breaks out at ONGC plant in Navi Mumbai, four dead

Protests over fire

Residents of Baghjan have been protesting for the last week over the damage caused by the gas leak.

Tinsukia district authorities have shifted 1,610 families from the well’s vicinity to relief camps. 

“Our paddy fields have been destroyed. Grasslands, crops, everything destroyed. Of course, people will protest. Nature, livelihood everything has been destroyed. Thousands had to leave their homes,” said Atul, a local villager.

The local flora and fauna was also hit by the gas leak as it is next to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, which is just 2 km away.

On 29 May, a carcass of an endangered Gangetic dolphin was found in Maguri-Motapung wetland, which is less than a kilometre away from the fire site. 

“It started on 27 May, they need so many days? If they can’t control it, they shouldn’t have taken the risk at the cost of nature and us,” Atul said.

The OIL in its statement said “violent protests” had erupted around the site and that it had raised the matter with the district and state authorities, urging them to maintain law and order in the area.

‘Will take 6 months to restore the affected areas’

Meanwhile, those present at the site complained of another problem — symptoms like burning eyes caused by the gas condensate. 

Hazarika, the OIL spokesperson, said it might take upto six months to restore the affected areas. 

“We will try to reclaim the areas that are lost and within five to six months, we will restore these areas. This is the first time the local people are seeing a fire of this size and we understand the apprehension,” he said. 

The OIL stated it will be providing an amount of Rs 30,000 to each of the affected families as compensation.

ThePrint called the district collector and the circle officer for a comment on the incident, but they didn’t pick up.

Also read: At least 7 dead in ‘styrene’ gas leak at LG Polymers factory in Visakhapatnam, many injured

How the blowout happened 

A blowout occurs as a result of increased pressure, which in this case had risen to around 4,000 PSI (pound per square inch), much higher than the normal pressure of 2,700 PSI, according to reports

The blowout, Hazarika told ThePrint, took place when the oil well was being serviced on the morning of 27 May.

“The well-head was being repaired as there was leakage in it. We sealed the well temporarily, which is also known as ‘killing the well’ before servicing it. However, even after ‘killing the well’ and putting additional cement barriers, the gas well started leaking from the bottom,” he added.

A probe has been initiated to understand how the gas leaked despite the sealing.

Given the magnitude of the blowout, the ONGC was also roped in

“… one must understand that a well blowout can be easily sealed or closed once it starts. There is no shortcut to the initial process, which takes a minimum of 9-10 days, with or without international experts,” the spokesperson added. 

Typically, the containment exercise includes the creation of  a water reservoir, which will protect the workers as they seal the gas leak. The spokesperson said it had to lease a piece of land, and then arrange for river pumps and cranes to bring the water from a local source, which accounts for the extra time taken.

“Getting international help also took two to three extra days due to the Covid situation. They have told us that it will take 4 weeks to contain the situation,” he added. 

This is the second such incident after the major blowout in 2005 at the OIL’s gas well in Dikom in Dibrugarh district, which took over a month to control. 

Experts from the US-based firm, Boots & Coots International Well Control Inc, were called in at the time to control the situation. 

Also read: Assam is my identity, Islam a personal belief. Don’t let India communalise an ethnic struggle


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