A hundred days after one of its natural gas wells in Assam’s Baghjan area reported a blowout, which subsequently caught fire, Oil India Limited (OIL) has been unsuccessful in controlling it so far. On Wednesday, Commerce and Industry Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said it might take another six to eight weeks to douse the fire at the well. “While experts from Canada are on their way to Assam with ‘snubbing’ equipment to kill the well, the process may take up to six-eight weeks,” said Patowary, replying to a zero hour notice by Congress’s Durga Bhumij at the Assam Assembly on Wednesday.
The ecological disaster at Baghjan in Tinsukia district was precipitated by the blowout — or an uncontrollable release of natural gas at well number 5, reported on May 27. On June 9, the well, located close to the Dibru-Saikhowa national park and Maguri Motapung wetland, caught fire, displacing thousands from their homes and leading to the deaths of two firefighters.
After a series of delays, first caused by the annual floods in June and later, an explosion which injured the foreign experts on site in July, OIL reached the penultimate stage of control operations in mid-August when they successfully placed the crucial Blowout Preventer (BOP) device at the well-head. However, the final stage of the operations, which involved injecting mud at high pressure through the BOP to “kill” or completely shut down the well, failed — compelling OIL to call off their operations and think of alternative options.
Alternative steps: Diverting the gas
The authorities are now trying to look at the possibilities of diverting the gas from the well into two streams. “For this, the gas will be diverted through two independent lines,” Patowary said, in his response.
Explained OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika: “Basically, it is an elaborate technical exercise that involves a network of pipelines being fitted to the BOP. A portion of the gas will be diverted for partial production to the Baghjan Early Production System. This will be added to the daily gas production of OIL. Another quantity of gas will be flared.”
This step, the authorities hope, will prove to be of immediate relief to the local people in the surrounding areas. “If we are successfully able to divert a portion of the gas, it will mean that the fire and the sound will reduce,” said Hazarika, adding they will be ready for this procedure in another three to four days.
According to Tinsukia district officials, while many people have moved back home, 500 people are currently in two relief camps in Baghjan and Guijan. Locals claim that the sound from the well can be heard up to 5 km away. Initially, 3,000 families were in various relief camps around the area.
The authorities said that diverting the gas will also help with the ‘snubbing’ operations’, for which equipment is awaited. “With this, the well killing operations will be attempted at the bottom of the well, unlike earlier when we were working with the surface level,” Hazarika said, adding: “Diverting the gas now will lessen the pressure, and it will be easier for the snubbing equipment to perform.”
Compensation and protests
Since August 24, about 200 villagers have been camping in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in a peaceful protest organised by the Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha.
“The twelve families whose homes were completely burnt received compensation, but the others whose homes were partially burnt have not,” said Hemanta Moran, of the Baghjan Gaon Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha, “We will not move till all the compensation comes through. We don’t understand the technical side of things. We kept believing them when they said that the fire will be controlled. Now we feel duped.”
An expert committee formed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) recommended three categories of compensation: Rs 25 lakh for those whose houses were completely destroyed, Rs 10 lakh for those severely damaged, and Rs 2.5 lakh for those moderately damaged. According to Bhaskar Pegu, Tinsukia DC, the protesters are looking for increased compensation in the second and third categories. “We are communicating with the expert committee of the NGT about this,” he said, adding that the protests are peaceful. “Since there is no law and order situation, so we have let them be there.”
Patowary informed the Assembly that 12 families whose houses were completely burnt have been given Rs 20 lakh, and 1,484 families have been given Rs 30,000 and 1,197 families have been given Rs 25,000 as one-time compensation.
“Till now, we do not know what we will get — we have heard some compensation is coming our way, but I am not sure,” says 38-year-old Sangeeta Chetia, whose baari or garden was burnt when the well caught fire. Since then, she, her husband and three daughters have been at a relief camp. “Even when they douse the fire, what will we go back to? There is nothing left in our garden — all our betel nut trees, mango trees are gone, we depended on this garden for our survival,” says Chetia.