An explosion at a gas well near a national park and wetlands in the Indian state of Assam has killed two firemen and diverse wildlife, including an endangered river dolphin. The national park is also a biosphere reserve.
The gas well, located 900 metres from the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and close to the eco-sensitive Maguri-Motapung wetlands in the Northeastern state, exploded and caught fire on June 9 after leaking for two weeks. This blowout - a sudden and uncontrolled release of gas or oil - occurred in the Baghjan area of Assam’s Tinsukia district.
The wildlife affected by the blazing fire includes an endangered gangetic river dolphin - the national aquatic animal of India - a flying squirrel, and a variety of fish. The animals reportedly died as a result of the condensate, the remnants of gas that condense when they come into contact with the water, which spilled over into surrounding forest areas.
“When the gas leak started about 15 days ago, I could smell it and see oil particles on my phone, and even heard the explosion though I live 13km away from the oil rig,” Deborshee Gogoi, a member of environmental organisation Fridays for Future’s Guwahati chapter, told VICE over the phone.
“We’re seeing animals die of suffocation from the smoke, and we’re trying to rescue birds like the pink quail. The [Government of India’s] Ministry for Environment approved this project for profits despite this being an eco-sensitive zone, with a national park and wildlife sanctuary just a few kilometres away. The air pollution could weaken peoples’ respiratory systems and make coronavirus cases in the area life-threatening.”
The well is part of a project by Oil India Limited (OIL), a government-owned hydrocarbon production and exploration company. The Baghjan well leak blowout happened in late May, while the company was trying to produce gas from a new oil and gas-bearing reservoir.
According to a statement released by OIL, a team of 200 engineers from Singapore-based firm Alert Disaster Control have been working to contain the leak over a four-week period. A statement they released on June 9 said that “while the clearing operations were on at the well site, the well caught fire.”
It also said “emergency meetings are underway,” but that the site is “now a safe environment for working” and that they are “confident that the situation can be controlled and the well can be capped safely.”
OIL has yet to apologise for the damage from the blowout.
Gogoi says that the leak has now been contained to the oil rig, but points out that many similar projects – like the the National Board for Wildlife’s (NBWL) approval to use Assam’s Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve land to be used as coal mine – are ticking environmental time bombs.
According to environmental website Down To Earth, the harmful condensate has led to toxic water flooding the nearby fields, damaging crops and destroying the soil. Many studies also claim that damage caused by oil wells can linger in the soil for years, threatening to poison wildlife. Exposure to toxic gas can cause cardiovascular diseases, neurological and respiratory issues.
This blowout has left more than 3,000 locals displaced, as many families that lived around the national park had to be evacuated, despite fears of COVID-19 transmission.
According to the Assam Pollution Control Board chairman, Y Suryanarayana, the gas – composed of toxic gases like propane, methane, propylene – is flowing with the wind, towards the northeast. “That is a radius up to 5 km and condensate is mostly falling on bamboo, tea gardens, banana trees and betel nut trees,” he told The Indian Express.
Meanwhile, Tinsukia’s divisional forest officer of wildlife, Rajendra Singh Bharti, also pointed out that even though the well technically falls outside the Eco Sensitive Zone of the park, the gas will continue to move through the air. “Condensate is falling into Dibru-Saikhowa National Park too,” he said.
“It’s frustrating because politicians are killing our natural biodiversity to pocket [money],” Rahul Rajkhowa, a 23-year-old environmental activist, teacher and rapper from Guwahati told VICE. “Companies like OIL are being exempted from public hearings that let the locals express their grievances. People have been fighting against these vested interests since 2016, but the cause barely gets recognition beyond Assam.”
The problem isn’t just in Assam. This year, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) plans to approve 191 oil drilling, fracking and mining projects that encroach upon areas with endangered species. A new policy passed in January 2020 exempts oil and gas firms from seeking environmental clearances for offshore drilling. Environmentalists say these increase threats to biodiversity and migratory patterns.
The concerns in Assam find resonance in other parts of the world. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to halt enforcement of environmental rules during the pandemic, which has no demarcated end date.
The U.S. has more than 190,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines spread across the country. According to a 2016 report by CityLab, 9,096 pipeline-related accidents have occurred in the U.S over 30 years. Pipeline projects like the Keystone XL, which flows from Alberta to Nebraska, and the Dakota Access, which flows through the Northern parts of America, have been described as posing a grave environmental threat to Native American communities and indigenous tribes.
Last year, the Keystone 1 pipeline in North Dakota leaked 383,040 gallons of oil, about half an Olympic-sized swimming pool amount of fossil fuel into pristine wetlands. Gas leaks are notorious for dispersing a dirty, thick liquid known as tar sands, which are nearly impossible to clean up.
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