A National Green Tribunal (NGT) committee has found the Baghjan oilfield and 26 other oil wells in Assam are operating without mandatory environmental clearances.

NGT’s principal bench headed by AK Goel had constituted a committee led by former Judge BP Katakey on June 26 to investigate the cause and the impact of the Baghjan blowout.

The committee was constituted after Kolkata-based activist, Bonani Kakkar and Wildlife and Environment Conservation Organization, an Assam-based non-profit had approached the NGT.

Oil India Limited’s well at Bagahjan in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district experienced a blowout on May 27, followed by a fire.

The Baghjan blowout site is located next to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, and has been burning for 160 days. It continues to impact an area of 10 kms around the OIL’s oil and gas rig.

On November 3, Justice Katakey submitted a status report on the ongoing investigation into the cause and impact of the blowout. The committee is likely to submit a final report by December 15.

The committee has recommended payment of Rs 25 Lakh to 173 families and Rs 20 lakh to 439 families identified by the district administration.

The authorities found that 57 houses had been completely gutted during the explosion June 9, when the spilled gas condensates and crudes caught fire.

The committee found that a pregnant woman living in the vicinity had suffered a miscarriage.

Similar instances of miscarriages were also reported among cattle and the endangered Hoolock Gibbon in the neighbouring forests.

Justice Katakey made interim recommendations in the status report submitted to the tribunal in which it sought legal action against Oil India Ltd (OIL) for violating the Air, Water and Environmental Protection Acts.

“On the day of the blowout of well Baghjan-5 May 27 and explosion June 9, Oil India Limited did not have the mandatory consents, the committee reported.

Oil India did not have the Consent To Establish / No Objection Certificate and / or the Consent To Operate under the Water Act, Air Act and / or the Hazardous Waste [Management, Handling and Trans-boundary Movement] Rules, 2016,” the committee said.

The committee found Oil India Limited to have violated terms under which such clearance had been granted to it.

On September 7, 2017, the Supreme Court permitted Oil India Limited to extract hydrocarbons near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park while delivering the landmark verdict of the TN Godavaram case.

The case acts as a deterrent to any kind of industrial activity near protected areas such national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

The apex court had granted a conditional approval to Oil India Limited, stating that the company should carry out a biodiversity impact assessment before commencing extraction of hydrocarbons.

Interestingly, the Justice Katakey Committee found that OIL did not carry out the assessment nor did it approach the apex court, seeking a final clearance for its extraction activities near the DSNP.

“OIL has been unable to carry out the Biodiversity Impact Assessment Study either through the Assam State Biodiversity Board, as was mandated by the Supreme Court, a fact that stands corroborated by the Assam State Biodiversity Board, or by any other agency,” the committee stated.

Justice Katakey Committee said such actions place Oil India Limited in continuing contempt of the directions passed by the Supreme Court of India, specifically its order dated September 7, 2017, granting conditional approval to undertake extraction of hydrocarbons from the Baghjan-5.

The Justice Katakey Committee also stated that Oil India Limited had violated the directives of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

On March 7, 2016, the CPCB classified oil and gas extraction as red category industries and had prohibited their operations in ecologically fragile areas and protected areas. The Assam government had also adopted the directions in 2019.

“Thus, the continuing extraction of hydrocarbons around the Dibru Saikhowa National Park would qualify as a Red category project, and is in clear violation of the Assam Government’s notification dated May 4, 2019,” the committee noted.

Unfortunately, neither Oil India Limited nor the Pollution Control Board of Assam have clarified before the Committee the inconsistency with the mandate given by the Central Pollution Control Board,” Justice Katakey Committee reported.

It has also been reported that the present violations by Oil India Limited will also impact future plans to extract hydrocarbons from underneath the Dibru Saikhowa National Park through seven proposed oil wells.

The committee has recommended that the Pollution Control Board Assam should be directed to take legal action against Oil India Limited for violating various environmental as well as industrial regulations.

Interestingly, the Pollution Control Board Assam had issued closure notices to Oil India Limited in June, after the blowout incident. But, the closure notices were withdrawn within a week.

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