Two days after an Oil India Ltd (OIL) well in Assam’s Tinsukia district caught fire following a blowout, the state government Thursday ordered a high-level probe into the ecological disaster.
The fire at Baghjan 5 well—close to the ecologically-sensitive Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung wetland—occurred 14 days after natural gas started leaking from the well. It has led to the death of two firemen and displaced thousands.
The extent of the damage — both to humans and the environment — is currently being assessed by the authorities.
On June 11, a release from OIL said: “Extent of the fire has been contained to the well.” It also said that “no flash fire is reported from the nearby areas” and that fire tenders were on site.
A statement from Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s office on Thursday said that the CM ordered a probe into the blowout and subsequent fire at Baghjan, led by Additional Chief Secretary Maninder Singh. The CM has asked for the report to be submitted within 15 days.
On Thursday, the Union Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas ordered a three-member high-level committee to probe the incident.
The committee is to submit its report within a month.
In a call with Sonowal on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assured all possible help and support from the Centre in the accident. As per a release from the CMO, Sonowal has also directed Additional Principal Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) M K Yadava to conduct a study on the effects on the environment and ecology of the surrounding areas.
While the state government probed was announced Thursday, OIL had on June 1 announced a five-member inquiry committee to probe the blowout. Following that, the company sent a showcause notice to John Energy Pvt Limited, the Gujarat-based company to whom they had outsourced the well drilling operations.
On Wednesday, OIL suspended two of its middle-management officers — one in the drilling department and the other in the oil and gas production services department.
About the probe, OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said, “We are trying to come out with the report as early as possible but for an incident of this proportion and size, the committee has to exhaust all possibilities. Right now since the blowout has not been contained, we have not been able to visit the well site and investigate what happened there.”
An expert who worked with OIL for decades said the very idea of an “internal probe by OIL is problematic”.
“Shouldn’t a third party have been invited to carry out the probe right from the beginning? Why did they not appoint an external committee without OIL’s intervention?” he asked.
Hazarika said an internal probe was a part of the company’s SOP. “Apart from that, government agencies (Directorate General of Mines and Safety and Oil Industry Safety Directorate) will hold independent inquiries, too. The CM too has asked for one. So four inquiries will happen on one incident,” he said.
The Opposition has raised concerns about OIL’s handling of the situation. The state Congress unit submitted a memorandum to PM Modi, routed through Governor Jagdish Mukhi, saying it was due to OIL’s “negligence” that the situation went from “bad to worse”.
“The people in the surrounding area are passing sleepless nights with great tension,” state Congress president Ripun Bora wrote.
In his memorandum, Bora sharply criticised the OIL’s role in trying to contain the blowout. “It is pertinent to mention that while there was non-stop leakage of natural gas for the last 14 days, Oil India Ltd has miserably failed to control it. Moreover, they had not taken the matter seriously. Even the Ministry of Petroleum had also not taken it seriously. Till now neither the Minister of Petroleum nor any senior officers from the Ministry with experts visited the spot.”
To contain the crisis, OIL has roped in the services of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). However, it took nearly 12 days for the company to fly in experts from Singapore — as per OIL, the delay was caused by travel restrictions owing to the lockdown.
“Agreed, a blowout cannot be predicted, but it is not an unknown phenomenon. Considering OIL had dealt with such a blowout 15 years ago, why were they not prepared now? At least an MoU with an international company should be in place for disasters like this,” said the expert.
According to Hazarika, even if an MOU was signed, the exercise to get the experts is financially challenging for any company. “Corporations always try to handle challenges the best they can. Only when you realise it’s beyond your control, you call them,” he said.
He also said training for a blowout can never be done through a simulated experience. “To learn how to handle a blowout, you have to actually face the blowout,” he said, adding that the Singapore-based international experts, Alert, had handled over 1,000 blowouts in 135 countries so far. “And these companies are much bigger than ours,” he said.
The damage assessment reports are yet to be submitted. “We can comment on the extent of damages only once the results come to us,” said Hazarika.
Hazarika also informed that as per the Singapore experts, the blowout will take 25-28 days to control.
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