On May 27, 2020, a sudden and uncontrolled blowout of natural gas occurred at Baghjan oil field well no. 5 operated by Oil India Limited near Baghjan Village in Assam. The situation further worsened on June 9, 2020, when the well exploded and caught fire killing two of OIL’s firefighters at the site.
Baghjan village is located in Tinsukia district bordering Arunachal Pradesh. It is adjacent to the eco-sensitive Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and 500 metres away from the Maguri-Motapung Beel wetland. Environmentalists and locals have assessed extensive damage to the area’s ecology as this evergreen forest is home to diverse flora and fauna.
The impact of the fire was particularly severe on the residents of Baghjan village. Fire engulfed houses rendering many homeless, more than 2500 people from 1610 families were evacuated from the affected areas, many were already living in a relief camp following the blowout on May 27, amid ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. The leak has caused major health problems in people living Baghjan and surrounding areas. People complained about dizziness, irritation in eyes and breathlessness due to gas emissions from the well. The blowout also further aggravated the existing health condition of people suffering from morbid illnesses like TB and liver condition in the nearby villages leading to their untimely demise.
The ill-effects of the blowout are not just limited to health hazards. The locals are claiming that this incident severely affected their livelihood. Miranda Gohain, a well known environmental activist from the area said, “Agriculture, fishing and animal rearing is the main occupation of most people in this area. But now because of the oil spill, agricultural land will become infertile and no farming will be possible for many years. Also, fishes and domestic animals are dying in large numbers because oil has contaminated grasslands and water bodies.”
While Baghjan has been the most affected by the blowout due to its proximity to the well, villages located further downstream like Notungaon, Milanpur, Hatibagh, Bebejia and Barekuri have also suffered considerably. Droplets of condensate have reportedly spread up to a radius of 5 km, falling on trees, tea gardens, grasslands, water bodies, and on the roofs of houses.
Impact on Environment
Together, Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguri Motapung Beel form a unique biodiversity hotspot where scores of tourists visit every year. The National Park is known for its population of feral horses and is also home to 36 species of mammals, 382 species of birds.104 species of fish, 11 species of chelonians, 18 species of lizards, 23 species of snakes, 165 species of butterflies and 680 plant species, The Beel, classified as an Important Bird Area, on the other hand, is known for its avian and aquatic fauna and is a favourite niche location for ornithologists. Birders from all over the globe come here to see birds like Marsh Babbler, Jerdon’s Babbler, Swamp Prinia, Black-breasted Parrotbill, Swamp Francolin, etc. However, the fire destroyed about 60-70 hectares of biodiversity-rich land, which was one of the important refuges for several endangered and range-restricted species. Population of bird species have declined in grasslands by 59% and Wetlands by 85% due to the catastrophe. The leak has created a coating of oil film on the vegetation, the beel, riverfront, as well as on many species of river fauna, birds and mammals, in the impacted area . The leakage of hazardous and toxic chemicals, which is dangerous to life in general is known to persist in aquatic and soil system for long, leading to prolonged ill effects on all life forms, including humans.
Lately, OIL received environment clearance from the Ministry of Forest and Environment & Climate Change (MoEFCC) to carry out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in seven locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park, which locals and environmental activists have been protesting. It is imperative that the government take corrective action to prevent further mishaps similar to the Assam oil field blowout in the future and take strict preventive measures while conferring environment exploration licenses to companies who exploit natural resources. Abusing mother earth in the name of development is ludicrous and can become a threat to our existence on the planet.