A dead Xihu (Gangetic river dolphin) killed by the Baghjan oilfield blowout in Assam. Photo: Jahid Ahmed

The Baghjan blowout may die down in time, but the long-term impact of the tragedy on the environment and the people are only beginning to be comprehended, writes N. Habib

Two images are emblematic of the Baghjan oilfield blowout in upper Assam: a dead Xihu (Gangetic River Dolphin) floating on the once-pristine waters of the Maguri-Motapung wetlands, and a young couple looking at the blaze from a distance, their backs to the camera, but the alertness in their pose telling us about their anxiety. Exactly two weeks after a gas leak, on June 9th, the Baghjan oil field caught fire (but even before that, on May 27, the well was leaking gas and condensate). Flames rocketed sky-high, aided by condensate, a highly flammable substance. Because of the heat and pressure underground, condensate remains in gaseous form, but once outside, it transforms into a liquid base, a thin film coating water bodies and fertile agricultural lands. Some of it is being picked up by using country boats by Oil India Limited (OIL), the company that runs the oilfield. Interestingly, though, OIL had initially informed that ‘ongoing operations were suspended as the well started releasing natural gas in an uncontrolled manner’. The information on condensate leaking out was omitted.
“Condensate is a form of gasoline and after a layer of it forms on a water surface, the oxygen levels start depleting. As a result, animal species dependent on the water body literally choke to death. Also, condensate is sulphur-rich and in contact with water, it forms sulphuric acid, which is why vegetation in and around the water bodies and agricultural land have turned into a deadly reddish-yellow hue,” says Udayan Borthakur, a biologist with Aaranyak, a local NGO, who has been working on the nearby Dibru Saikhowa National Park. Condensate, eventually, evaporates into the air, and the Earth is cleansed of the toxic mix.
However, much depends on the affected habitat. Condensate spill in the middle of the ocean or on an isolated oil drilling site is another matter, but one in the biodiversity-rich Baghjan area, also home to many indigenous communities, is another matter altogether. “Soil pollution in a wetland like Maguri-Motapung beel may be disastrous. All the intricate underground water channels may actually take the condensate matter far from the site of occurrence. Think of it like a ripple effect,” explains Dr. Borthakur. Wetlands are of many types and the Maguri-Motapung wetland is one of the most ecologically fertile, belonging to the ‘fen’ variety. It is mineral-rich and is characterized by a wide diversity of plants and other animal species. The wetland supports 300 bird species, and eight of them have been distinguished as ‘globally threatened’ by IUCN. It is also home to 86 species of fish, including the ‘Magur’ fish, from where the wetland derives the first part of its name. The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, which is located on river islands in the middle of the Brahmaputra river, is less than three aerial kilometers away from Baghjan, and according to a recent report, ‘has been identified as a potential Ramsar site by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and meets the criteria to be declared a wetland of international importance’. The Maguri-Matpung wetland is connected to the Brahmaputra.

Despite the ecological diversity and importance of the area, it has come to light that OIL managed to get environmental clearances for 26 development and 15 exploratory wells in Tinsukia district, skipping mandatory public hearings and environment assessment.

Post disaster, OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika spoke to this magazine and confirmed that an environmental assessment is going on right now, both by OIL agencies and the government to map the immediate damage. Most ecological studies take time and effort, and in Baghjan, the process has only reportedly begun. No tentative date of the report being placed in the public domain has been given. Former OIL director PK Borthakur has said in a recent news report that ‘the impact on the environment is not going to be long-term’, a claim environmentalists are wary of believing.

Prerna Singh Bindra, one of the environmentalists asked to file an inspection report in 2012 as she was part of the National Board for Wildlife, has recently stated that there was little clearance required for laying the crude oil pipeline, as ‘OIL had already completed most of the pipeline-laying work’. It also puts into question the power held by such regulatory government bodies if all it can do is put a stamp of approval on already commenced projects.

There are around 10 villages in the area leading up to the blowout, and most villagers depend on the wetlands for sustenance. Notungaon, which falls within a 1.2 kilometre radius, was one of the worst affected by the blowout. Small quakes still continue and residents wake up in the dead of night, scared but with nowhere to go, their homes and homesteads burnt to a cinder and their agricultural fields lying barren. Rohit Nayak, who helps out at one of the camps, shares that all they want to do is go back home, and many sneak into their homes at night…at least those who have a home to go back to.

On request of anonymity, an OIL official observed that Baghjan is significant because it is situated in an area that has vast underground reserves of crude oil. As reserves elsewhere are fast depleting, OIL has to up the ante if it wishes to stay in the game – big oil companies need to maximize production to be viable. Till the filing of this report, three new proposals for environmental clearance, including one in Tinsukia, have been put up by OIL. Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal has asked OIL to pay Rs 25 crores as environmental damage for the Baghjan blowout. With OIL in a spot over Baghjan, it is not illogical to surmise that operations elsewhere will be stepped up, often at the cost of the environment and the local people.

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