Massive fire rages at Assam oil well, Air Force on standby
Tinsukia/Dibrugarh/Guwahati, June 09: A massive fire on Tuesday engulfed the damaged Baghjan oil well which has been spewing gas uncontrollably for the last two weeks in Assam's Tinsukia district.
The blaze at the Oil India Ltd's well is so massive that it can be seen from a distance of more than 30 kilometres with thick black smoke going up several metres high, endangering the local biodiversities which were already ravaged following the major blowout that happened on May 27.
A firefighter of the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) suffered minor injuries during efforts to control the blaze, which Oil India said could take as long as four weeks to be put off.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal spoke to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and urged them to take urgent steps to douse the fire that broke out when clearing operations were on at the site.
Sonowal was assured of all kinds of central assistance and told even the Air Force was on standby to deal with the emerging situation.
A massive explosion happened in the afternoon at the oil well, next to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, and soon black smoke engulfed the area, eyewitnesses said. There were protests in the area as the fire broke out, threatening the lives and livelihood of the people already facing the impact of the blowout for the last two weeks amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Following the gas leak, thousands of people were moved out of the area and provided shelter at different camps where following coronavirus guidelines, such as maintaining social distancing, remain difficult. In a statement, Oil India said in view of the protests by people around the site, the chief Secretary and Tinsukia district administration were requested for maintaining law and order so that experts were allowed to enter the site and start the well control operations.
The staff of Oil India and ONGC are being shifted from the nearby areas and once the situation is normal, experts from Singaporean firm Alert Disaster Control and the state-owned companies will move to the site, it said. The three experts from the Singaporean firm who started working at the site on Monday to stop the gas leak are confident that the situation can be controlled and the well can be capped safely, the statement said.
The situation demands the arrangement of large quantities of water, installation of high discharge pumps and removal of debris, it added. All the operations as per the Alert Disaster Control team will take about four weeks and efforts will be made to reduce this timeframe as much as possible, it said.
The chief minister said all necessary steps have been taken by the state government to ensure the safety of the local people in Baghjan and instructions have been sent to district and police administrations about the same. He said the chief secretary and the Director General of Police have been directed to take active steps to control the situation while keeping the armed and paramilitary forces, fire brigades, NDRF and SDRF engaged to ensure the safety of the people. He also called on the people in the affected area not to panic as both the central and the state governments have been taking all measures to ensure their safety.
Sonowal spoke to Home Minister Shah and apprised him of the situation, officials said, adding that state Industries and Commerce Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary was asked to immediately visit Baghjan and take stock of the situation.
Following his telephonic conversation with the Petroleum Minister, the chief minister also held a video conference with Pradhan, officers of the Petroleum Ministry, and the foreign experts who came from Singapore and took stock of the ground situation.
Pradhan told the chief minister of all the steps and technological interventions being made in a synergistic way by the stakeholders in putting the situation under control, officials said. Sonowal while expressing his apprehension on the impact of the fire on the environment and people living in the fringe areas, stressed the need for putting out the fire at the earliest to ensure a conducive living condition for the people. Environmental Impact Assessment is in progress and a team from the Assam Agricultural University in Jorhat has reached Duliajan, the Oil India said.
Earlier, pictures of carcasses of a river dolphin and some dead fishes in Maguri Motapung Beel, which is adjacent to Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and about 1.5 km from the incident site, went viral on social media following the gas leak. Due to seepage of crude, condensate and other chemicals from the oil well there has been large-scale damage to the ecology of the area, according to environmentalists and various groups.
Leader of Opposition Debabrata Saikia expressed concern over the explosion and subsequent fire, blaming the central and the state governments "negligent" attitude for the disaster. Saikia said neither the Petroleum Minister nor senior officials of the ministry have felt it necessary to visit Baghjan even two weeks after the gas leak started. He alleged that the Centre was only interested in handing over oilfields, limestone mines and other natural resources of Assam to crony capitalists. Regarding the status of activities for well control, Oil India said testing of equipment is in progress and transfer to the site is underway.