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ONGC, barge contractor ‘ignored’ cyclone warnings, resulting in deaths of nearly 50 workers

Cyclone Tauktae battered ONGC’s major production installations & drilling rigs off Mumbai High on 17 May. At least 49 workers are dead. Several are missing.

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New Delhi: State-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and its contractor Afcons seemingly ignored multiple warnings issued by the weather department and the Indian Coast Guard, which has resulted in the death of at least 49 workers off India’s west coast following Cyclone Tauktae, ThePrint has learnt.

The cyclone battered major production installations and drilling rigs Monday — Afcons’ Barge Papaa-305, Barge Support Station-3 and Barge GAL Constructor, and ONGC’s drill ship Sagar Bhushan. These ONCG production installations were anchored near the Heera Oil Field off Mumbai High, around 70 km away from the Maharashtra capital.

So far, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard have rescued over 600 personnel from the four vessels off the Mumbai coast. They continue to deploy sea and air assets to search for the several who are still missing.

Sources in the defence and security establishment expressed shock over the call to leave so many people at sea despite advance warnings of the cyclone.

“The Coast Guard had issued several warnings for over a week against the impending cyclone. The nature of a cyclone is such that its speed and direction can change any time. It is shocking that so many people were at sea despite the warnings,” said a source in the establishment.

“Just imagine the human loss if the Naval and Coast Guard ships had not reached in time,” the source said.

A second source said the Coast Guard disseminated weather warnings through its ships and aircraft as well as in written form in accordance with its standard operating procedure.

Cyclone Tauktae hit the Arabian Sea off the coast of Mumbai in the early hours of 17 May, hitting ONGC’s major production installations and drilling rigs located there. The wind speeds are said to have risen to nearly 150-180 kmph accompanied by six-eight metres high waves.

ThePrint reached ONGC for a comment via email but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.

Afcons, however, washed its hands off the incident, saying that the warnings were heeded but the cyclone intensified beyond predictions. It also said that the responsibility of barge P-305 rested with the vessel’s owner, Durmast, and the barge master.

Also read: PM Modi announces Rs 1,000 crore aid in cyclone Tauktae-hit Gujarat

Man-made disaster, say experts

A former Navy Commander, who has worked with merchant navy and was also involved with the oil industry, said it is shocking that the personnel remained at sea despite warnings.

“There needs to be a thorough probe and accountability fixed,” he said.

Asked what could be a probable reason for the personnel to not be moved to safety, he said, “I won’t be able to say exactly but there is a cost involved and firms prefer not to implement it until absolutely necessary.”

In comments to the press, engineer Rahman Shaikh, who is among the 186 rescued by the Navy from the now-sunk Barge P-305, said his captain didn’t take the cyclone warnings seriously. He added that many of the life rafts had punctures.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas formed a high-level committee to “inquire into the sequence of events leading to the stranding of ONGC vessels in the cyclone”.

Commander K.P. Sanjeev Kumar, a former Navy test pilot and alumnus of the Indian Air Force Test Pilots School who worked in the oil and gas field as pilot from 2014-2019, said what happened to P-305 was “a man-made disaster and not a cyclonic disaster”.

According to him, the personnel should have been moved to safer locations under international safety protocols.

What is a barge?

A barge is a shoal-draft flat-bottomed boat that is mainly used for river and canal transport of bulk goods. The barge can be both self-powered or moved with the use of a tug.

Afcons was using the three affected barges to house the workers working on the ONGC project.

Any offshore oil well needs a number of vessels around it for support, including offshore support vessels, oil rigs (drillers), tugs, seismic survey vessels, floaters, general barges, and accommodation barges.

Cdr Kumar explained that P-305 was an accommodation work barge (AWB) and was not self-propelled. “We call it the dumb barge because it doesn’t have independent propulsion. Without any mobility, it will get tossed about in the storm and even get toppled over,” he said.

In the case of P-305, the anchor gave way and the barge started drifting. It hit another oil installation and eventually sank with 261 workers on board.

Kumar said such barges are positioned and moored to offshore sites when there is a need to provide additional accommodation, engineering support or storage capacity for a temporary project.

“The design of such barges (large sail area, catamaran structure, flat bottom in some cases) renders them vulnerable to heavy seas and gale-force winds, especially if they are ‘dumb’ (immobile). In the run up to monsoon or during cyclone warning, they are either repositioned to safe location or secured with storm moorings,” he wrote in his blog.

Also read: What Cyclone Tauktae tells us about Arabian Sea & why the coast is seeing more severe cyclones

Afcons says it followed weather forecast

In a statement to ThePrint, Afcons said it paid heed to all the warnings received on 14 May, and the master of the vessel took the call to move the vessel 200m, which seemed safe to him.

According to the company, published weather reports including cyclone alerts are for general region of operation and not particularly relevant for any exact area of operation.

The ONGC contractor said the standard practice of offshore contractors is to obtain weather forecasts for the work location from well-known weather forecasters, which are typically issued twice a day, and provide forecasts for the next seven days.

“Marine as well as construction operations are planned based on the above location-specific forecasts. The same practice was followed by Afcons. The weather forecasts received on 14th May 2021 from the service provider predicted that sustained wind speed of maximum 40 knots (classified as a ‘tropical storm’ by our service provider) is likely to occur at our specific work location late 16th/early 17th May 2021,” the company added.

Sources in the defence and security establishment pointed out that this statement shows that Afcons just went by 14 May forecast even when the cyclone’s intensity was increasing. “The 40 knots speed is there even when heavy rains occur. So it is quite surprising that the company thought cyclone speed would be 40 knots,” said a source.

‘Responsibility with owner Durmast’

Asked why precautionary measures weren’t taken, Afcons said all its vessels were advised on 14 May to secure their respective work locations and move to safe locations at the earliest. Accordingly, all vessels and barges, including P-305, began moving out of their work locations on 14-15 May.

“While the other barges moved to Mumbai Port/Mumbai Outer Anchorage/Anchorage close to Revandanda, the Master of P305 chose to move 200 m away from the HT platform where the Barge P305 was working, and to remain at that location, deciding this as a safe location since the max predicted wind speed was only 40 Knots and his location was 120 NM away from the eye of the tropical storm,” the company said.

The weather conditions deteriorated rapidly from the evening of 16 May, reaching levels far worse than predicted for 17 May, it added. The sudden deterioration in weather left no time for any further action by the master of the vessel, it added.

According to the normal marine protocol, as well as the specific charter agreement for P-305, matters concerning vessel safety lie under the responsibility of the owner/barge master, who is in the best position to decide on the appropriate course of action regarding vessel safety, the company said.

The company also sought to highlight that it had chartered the vessel from owner firm Durmast and the responsibility for “marine operations rests with the vessel owner and his marine crew stationed on the vessel”.

“Afcons, as charterer deploys its construction workmen and supervisors, who stay on the barge and carry out construction/ revamp work on the platform,” it added.

Also read: Delhi records highest-ever rainfall in May over 24-hour period


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