In a dramatic turn of events the Pollution Control Board of Assam (PCBA) has recalled its closure notice to Oil India Limited (OIL) to shut operations at the Baghjan oil field in Tinsukia district of Assam.
It took the PCBA just 48 hours to overturn its own decision to slap a closure notice to OIL charging the PSU of ‘nonchalantly violating’ provisions of law.
On June 19 PCBA issued a closure notice to OIL accusing the PSU of carrying out operations at the Baghjan Oil field without PCBA’s consent.
According to PCBA sources, the notice also accused OIL of violating important laws like the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974 and The Air (prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981.
On June 22 PCBA’s recall letter (No.WB/DIB/T-396/08-09/288/147) was received by OIL. A ‘mellowed’ PCBA now asked the PSU to respond to its queries within a fortnight seeking information on a detailed environmental management plan in case of future disasters and also on disposal of hazardous waste.
The strange overturn by PCBA has drawn flak from all quarters. The Assam Environment NGOs’ Forum –a body of some 20 conservation NGOs of the state was quick to react—“This has been too dramatic.
How could the PCBA that earlier accused OIL of operating in Baghjan without environmental clearances could alter its own decisions?
How could PCBA let OIL operate in the area for eight long years without its prior consent?”
On May 27 at about 10:30 am, rig ‘DGR – Location 5’ blew out at OIL’s production well site in Baghjan area of Assam’s easternmost district of Tinsukia that led to an uncontrolled release of crude as the well’s pressure control systems failed.
Although oil leakage in the area is not a new problem but this has been for the first time a disaster of such magnitude has happened affecting lives and livelihood of thousands and devastating the fragile ecosystems.
Air, water and soil have become equally polluted with the spilled over oil forming a thick toxic layer over croplands, fisheries, tea plantations and forests.
Immediately, more than 600 families (mostly from the indigenous Assamese and tea tribe communities) of two villages – Baghjan and Dighaltarang were evacuated to the nearby Baghjan government ME school premises.
On June 9, a massive fire broke out after a 14-day uncontrollable oil leak from the damaged oil well.
As raging fire engulfed the area, burning house after house, people fled leaving everything behind for the safety of their lives.
Hundreds of families from Natun Gaon village were forced to take shelter in two schools at Guijan, some four kilometers away.
Meanwhile, five people lost their lives at Natun Gaon in greater Baghjan after the incident. Local people leveled serious allegations that these deaths were due to inhaling of the toxic crude.
Life would never be same again
“OIL sources say it would take another fortnight before the fire is doused. The roaring noise from the blowout has become such an irritant, it has taken a toll on the health of people,” said Nirantar Gohain, an enterprising youth actively engaged in conservation and eco-tourism activities in the Guijan area.
“We never ever imagined such a catastrophe that would make so much difference to our lives,” said an elderly woman taking shelter in the make-shift camp.
“We have lived in this area for generations. Now, suddenly, we lost all means of livelihood! Don’t know from where to pick up! Life would never be the same again!” she said.
The International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) calls for accountability and justice for the oil well catastrophe to indigenous Assam communities and to the environment of North East India.
The lack of preparedness on part of the operating agencies has led to widespread condemnation while protests against drilling permission in this eco-sensitive area have grown louder.
There have been increasing concerns by environmentalists over this issue and they have now been joined by local students unions.
An FIR has been registered against Oil India Limited (OIL) and its outsourced well operator John Energy for the Baghjan blowout under the Indian Penal Code and the Disaster Management Act.
Two officials responsible for the blow out had already been placed under suspension.
The Company formed a five-member inquiry committee to look into any prima facie evidence of human error.
Meanwhile, OIL sources revealed that operations continue to be disrupted in 16 Oil wells and in one gas well due to protests and blockades.
Since May 27, cumulative production loss had been estimated at 8291 MT Crude oil and 10.56 MMSCM of natural gas.
Irreversible damage to already endangered ecosystems
The accident site was within the eco sensitive zones of two richest bio-diverse areas in northeastern India– the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motapung Beel—an Important Bird Area.
In 2013, the sighting of a Baikal bush warbler in the Maguri beel increased the number of avian species seen in India to 1,225.
Reckoned as a rich wildlife habitat and a haven of rare avian population– both endemic and migratory–Dibru Saikhowa is one of the last refuges of the endangered White-winged Wood Duck. The area is also known for its rich herpetofauna.
The spill of crude followed by the inferno brought doom to the different ecosystems–river, wetland and grasslands.
“With many of the insect and amphibian species on the decline from the crude spill, wonder how the next season of migratory birds would be?
No doubt OIL would compensate for lives and property. But what would be the compensation for the ecological disaster?
How would OIL compensate for the damage that has become irreversible,” asked Chandan Kumar Duarah, a science and environment reporter.
The Baghjan disaster struck in the midst of a raging controversy following environmental clearance to Oil India Limited by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for drilling and hydrocarbon testing at seven locations inside Dibru-Saikhowa National Park surrounded by six rivers–Lohit, Dibang and Disang on the north and Anantanala, Dangori and Dibru on the south.
There had been a trend to grant clearances to projects that destroy sensitive wildlife habitats, based on poor assessments. Even after a disaster of such intensity, no lessons seemed to have been learnt by environment bodies like the PCBA.
PCBA’s failure to make operating agencies accountable for the catastrophe and its U-turn from the earlier decision once again ridiculed our environmental decision-making process.
Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at: [email protected]