A new study by Assam Forest Department has pegged losses to the tune of more than ₹25,000 crore to the environment and biodiversity in and around Baghjan in Tinsukia district, which experienced a deadly blowout followed by a fire last year on June 9. The author of the study, Chief Wildlife Warden of Forest Department M.K. Yadava, who was appointed by the Assam Government to investigate the impact of the blowout on the ecosystems around Baghjan, close to Dibru Saikhowa National Park, blamed the faulty nature of environment clearances due to misreporting in the environmental impact assessment, which undermined the possibility of a blowout and the destruction it caused to the ecosystem.

The study shows that 64,000 kg of condensates, an area of 13.85 sq km, of which 7.97 sq km got burnt almost fully on June 9 when Baghjan 5, the oil rig operated by OIL caught fire | File image Credit: Rishu Kalantri

Addressing a webinar organized by Cotton University’s Environmental Biology Department on Saturday, Yadava said that 55 percent of the biodiversity in the area has been lost. “While the restoration efforts are on, it may take more than 10 years to revive the ecosystem,” Yadava said.

Over the last one year, Yadava referred to several researches on fires caused by oil spills and blowouts. “Baghjan fire was one of a kind. I have tried to search literature, tried to see parallels. Well, fire raging almost for five months [which was] not showing any signs of decay. This indicates that there is a rich oil and natural gas deposit at the bottom of it,” Yadava told the audience in the webinar.

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Deep impact of Baghjan fire

Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam’s Forest Department M.K. Yadava says 55 percent biodiversity in the area has been lost | File photo Credit: EastMojo Image file

Besides the loss of three lives directly due to the fire on June 9 and afterward, the region comprising of Baghjan, Maguri Motapung Wetland, surrounding Dibru Saikhowa National Park and other villages, including the habitat of Hollock Gibbons, lost 29,000 scheduled and non-scheduled species, according to Yadava. Scheduled species are protected by various sections of the Wildlife Protection Act. After the blowout, his department found carcasses of critically endangered Gangetic river dolphins and softshell turtles, several endangered birds, amphibians, and fish. Yadava also recorded the death of two Hollock Gibbon, a young mother, and her stillborn offspring, while he had also estimated deaths of several domesticated livestock in the vicinity of the area impacted by the blowout.

The forest official referred to several experts working on the field who provided him with data that shows impact not just on Maguri Motapung Wetland, which lies in the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, but also an area inside the National Park.

Yadava’s study shows that 64,000 kg of condensates, an area of 13.85 sq km, of which 7.97 sq km got burnt almost fully on June 9 when Baghjan 5, the oil rig operated by OIL caught fire. The blowout and the fire impacted 12.07 square kilometres inside the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, while 16.32 square kilometres of wetland area, 5.23 square kilometres of grassland area, 19.76 square kilometres of rivers and streams and 2.13 sq km of forest area was destroyed.

While sulphur was absent in the Baghjan oil rig that experienced the blowout, according to Yadava, in five months of the blowout 1.649 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 0.539 million tonnes of nitric oxide, 0.793 million tonnes of nitrogen dioxide, 78000 kg of soot were discharged into the surrounding atmosphere. The forest official also added that the blowout caused earthquakes measuring 3.9 on the Richter scale when the rig caught fire on June 9, last year.

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The blowout and the fire impacted 12.07 square kilometres inside the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. | File image Credit: Diganta Rajkhowa

Undermining ecology

Yadava named several factors that may have led to the destruction of the wildlife and human habitat in Baghjan. The environmental clearance based on faulty Environmental Impact Assessment is one such factor, according to Yadava. He told the audience that a blowout scenario and the devastation that it may cause were severely underestimated.

On the other hand, OIL Spokesperson, Tridiv Hazarika said that environmental impact assessment (EIA) is done by a third party for OIL’s rigs operated across Assam. “EIA reports were submitted to Assam Pollution Control Board following which we were granted clearance. We organized public hearings to secure clearances,” Hazarika added.

He also highlighted that Upper Assam is severely polluted by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), a cancer causing by-product generated by oil industry, which was found in high quantities in areas across Baghjan, especially in the soil. With only two studies on the extent of spread of PAHs for entire Assam, Yadava contended that there is a lot of work to be done in estimating the spread and impact on the people.

Based on the scale and the level of devastation, Yadava used the polluter-pays-principle, the ecological services rendered by forests and wildlife and shadow pricing to determine the monetary value of the losses. Yadava used the quantum of pollution, the wastage of precious hydrocarbons that could have been used for energy generation, the destruction of forests in hectares, the recurring expenses of reviving the ecosystem including soil over a period of 10 years to arrive at ₹25050.61 crore.

The official, however, indicated that exact value of the losses as calculated may vary. “OIL India is a public sector company. We do not want to destroy this company,” Yadava said. The Chief Wildlife Warden contended that the Baghjan issue should be an opportunity to raise critical questions about saving ecology vis-à-vis meeting energy needs for the future.

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The region comprising of Baghjan, Maguri Motapung Wetland surrounding Dibru Saikhowa National Park and other villages lost 29,000 scheduled and non-scheduled species after the fire. | File image Credit: Rishu Kalantri

Hazarika, the OIL spokesperson, said that there was no official communication from Assam Forest Department on the monetary value of the losses as calculated by Yadava. “We are not aware of these figures as we have not been communicated about the same,” Hazarika said.

OIL, however, allocated ₹20 crores recently to Assam Forest Department for conservation in Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Baghjan-Bherjan-Padumani Wildlife Sanctuary located in the vicinity of Baghjan oil and gas field.

“This amount is not connected to Baghjan oil well. Forest department will decide how they will spend the said amount,” Hazarika added.

Yadava said that restoration work of the wetlands has already started in several processes. “OIL has introduced bio-remediation process which uses microbes to treat water and soil,” Yadava added.

OIL’s Hazarika said that environmental organization The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has been entrusted to start bio-remediation in several sites. “Some of the restoration work has already shown results,” Hazarika said.

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