This is the second and final part of our in-depth series on two years of the Baghjan oilfield disaster. Read part one on how the oilfield disaster left farmers facing an uncertain future.

Tinsukia: Bornali Moran (40), Ritu Chandra Moran’s wife, saw their house burned down during the Baghjan disaster in 2020. She has been frequenting a private hospital in Tinsukia, 20 kilometres away. She started complaining about frequent stomach aches after returning to their old house, situated opposite the Oil India Limited-owned oil rig that witnessed a blowout on May 27, 2020, followed by a fire. Bornali’s medical tests revealed swollen thyroid glands. Doctors prescribed her medicines she may have to take for the rest of her lifetime. 

When residents in and around the BGN-5 were evacuated and taken to relief camps, Moran and thousands of people did receive a health check-ups. “We did receive some medicines after people, especially elder citizens, started complaining about headaches and fever. There were floods, on one hand, and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the other. My husband was in shock, and he did not eat for a long time,” she recalled. After receiving the interim compensation amount of Rs 25 lakh from OIL, she and her husband travelled every day from their rented house in Tinsukia to Baghjan to start rebuilding their home. 

In absence of long-term monitoring for any health ailments due to the blowout, Moran suspects that families who were habituated to boiling their water from the tube wells for drinking, she and many others have started to fall sick. “The water tastes acrid. When we prepare the tea liquor the water turns completely black. No one told us that the water is not fit for drinking,” added Bornali Moran. Her next-door neighbour, Kajali Saikia (42) and her husband, Amal (54) complain about nausea and lack of sleep even as several residents have complained about skin infection, especially among children. While both Moran and Saikia have been able to keep their medical records intact, many residents, who may be suffering from the long-term health impacts of the blowout, cannot furnish their medical records.  

All is not well

Despite 612 families of Baghjan receiving an interim compensation ranging from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 25 lakh following a National Green Tribunal order, the health concerns of humans have been largely ignored in this case. It is only by referring to the several studies on the health of the fragile ecosystem, one may be able to infer the well-being of the residents of Baghjan and the surrounding villages. 

The assessment carried out between June and September 2021 by Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the nodal agency of the Indian government coordinating with the Supreme Court committee has made damning revelations about the impact on the aquatic life of the Dibru river and Maguri Motapung wetland. 

WII report indicates that Poly-Aromatic Hydrocarbons concentrations may have already entered the organic matter present in the wetland, which regulates the unseen and vast microbial world, which in turn sustains aquatic plants and animals. “The drastic lowering of dissolved oxygen at many locations of the rivers, streams, Maguri-Motapung Wetland (MMW) and other wetlands, in combination with high concentrations of PAHs, resulted in the largescale mortality and morbidity of aquatic fauna,” relayed Supreme Court-appointed committee stating the findings of the WII report.

The wetlands of Maguri Motapung are flanked by grassy meadows which serve as grazing grounds for both domestic and wild animals such as deer and buffaloes. Around 64,000 kg of condensates consisting of heavy hydrocarbons is believed to have contaminated 589 hectares of pastoral and wetland expanse south of the OIL-operated rig, according to a study done by the M.K. Yadava Committee appointed by the Government of Assam which has been cited by the Supreme Court-appointed committee. 

Supreme Court Committee recommendations for areas around the blowout site:

  1. Restoration needs to be guided by a Conceptual Site Model indicating the area of influence of the containment, and the relationship between contaminant source, pathways, and receptors. 
  2. All enabling works like topographic surveys, site characterization, waste and debris management, monitoring of water sources prior to remediation must be completed by OIL. 
  3. OIL needs to pursue a risk-based clean-up approach adopting best available and non-invasive remediation technologies to bring down the level of contaminants. OIL and PCBA may conduct field trials of various remediation technologies before designing remediation strategy. 
  4. OIL should involve national regulators for investigation and development of remediation strategies. Participatory approaches specifically with the involvement of the local community through digital collaboration platform with all restoration data. 
  5. Where remediation is not possible, OIL should adapt site management strategy like monitored natural attenuation or exclusion to mitigate risks to people and the environment.
  6. Afforestation needs to be taken up in the area of influence (after remediation), using native species, in consultation and participation of local communities. 
  7. An office of ‘Contaminated Site remediation and technology innovation’ under PCBA may be established by the Government of Assam. The office may be entrusted with the responsibility of management of hazardous waste sites as per CPCB guidelines.

Condensates, as the Yadava Committee report notes, can enter the mammals’ bodies even through the skin and by breathing. “Once absorbed, these particles can cause lung abscesses, pneumonia, hormonal poisoning and heart infections in mammals,” stated the Yadava Committee report. The Supreme Court committee has referred to both the WII and the Yadava committee, which recorded deaths of Gangetic River dolphins and squirrels and stillbirths among endangered Hoolock Gibbons, livestock, poultry and dogs in the area. The WII report also stated that river dolphins in the area declined 89 per cent, while buffaloes and deer have moved away from the impacted site. 

Manoj Hazarika, one of the petitioners in the ongoing Supreme Court case, told East Mojo that in all likelihood, people who consumed water from the tube wells/water bodies next to the site of the blowout incident or consumed fish from the wetland are now falling sick. “We are demanding long term health monitoring of the people in Baghjan as well as its vicinity who were impacted by the blowout. A single health camp or health check-up would not reveal anything when the impacts would be felt for years,” Hazarika added. 

The Supreme Court committee cautioned that in case the studies determine that any of the wetland products are unsafe for human consumption, its harvest should be banned for a period as suggested by the study, and the dependent communities fully compensated for the loss. The committee recommended epidemiological studies within the communities living in and around the Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve (DSBR) to determine the effect of exposure to contaminants. “The studies must take a long-term view – such as health risks created by carcinogens released by the accident,” the committee stated. The Committee also recommended placing comprehensive health insurance for all persons and livestock in the zone of impact within a five-kilometre radius of the oil well that experienced the blowout.

Within limits?

Contrary to WII’s findings, OIL in its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court has cited reports by government departments and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a non-profit based in New Delhi working on environmental policy and research. The affidavit mentioned a study conducted by the Regional Directorate, North East (RDNE) under the Central Pollution Control Board, which measured water quality from five stations in the vicinity of the blowout site from Dibru River in October 2020. The study considered 21 parameters, including biological oxygen demand and chemical oxygen demand, that may indicate pollution in water and found lead in a pond adjacent to the blowout site. The affidavit states all the parameters were ‘within discharge limits of oil and gas industry’ as prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board. Curiously, even as WII found PAHs early on during the initial surveys and then later in a period between June and September 2021, there is no mention of PAHs in the study. Among the 21 parameters, RDNE examined ‘oil and grease’ levels in the water.

TERI, the non-profit, had been involved in damage assessment by the blowout since June 2020, when BGN-5 caught fire. OIL also sought TERI’s services for Rs 12.9 lakhs as a blowout affected site remediation contractor for Baghjan. In its latest report submitted to OIL in February 2022, it stated that the Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon (TPH) concentration within the remediation standard guideline range of less than 5000 mg per kilogramme. It further stated that PAH levels in most of the soil and water samples were below detectable limits. “These results reveal that the surrounding soil and environment is free from contamination due to natural process like heavy rainfall during the monsoon … Based on the sampling and analysis of soil, water and vegetation sample in surround environment including bio reserve, the said study reveals the absence of significant pollutants except traces of TPH content in the soil [within the acceptable limit] may be the only concern in further assessment and mitigation,” TERI concluded. 

Supreme Court committee’s findings, however, show that only two per cent of the contaminated soil has been remediated by TERI. By OIL’s admission as stated in the Supreme Court committee’s report, 10 cm of soil has been contaminated in and around the blowout site. This was established by collecting 20 soil samples from an area of 12.56 square kilometres. So far, 16000 cubic metres of the soil have been remediated by TERI. Based on OIL’s latest submission 1.26 million cubic metres are yet to be remediated from an area of 3.8 square kilometres as defined by OIL itself. Further, Supreme Court Committee while reviewing an authorised clean-up signed by both OIL and TERI observed that there was an underestimation of the volume of contaminated material. The committee also found remediation sites were not demarcated while the samples taken by TERI were found to be inadequate. Shocking as it may seem, TERI itself admitted the non-performance of any bioremediation or site restoration activities on the blowout site.  

Safeties are off

The Maguri Motapung Wetland complex and Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserves are one of the most sought-after locations for hydrocarbon exploitation in Tinsukia. The M.K. Yadava Committee appointed by the Government of Assam to investigate the impacts of the blowout estimated that more than 220 exploratory and development wells in the region surrounding Baghjan and neighbouring areas. Baghjan village itself has 31 production wells and locals say that OIL and its contractors are drilling from three new locations – two wells, close to the Dangori river and one next to the Baghjan High School. Despite having such a hazard-prone industry, wildlife plans, ecosystem management strategies and administrative preparedness for any disaster are almost absent. The most shocking recent revelation was that not just in Baghjan but for the entire Tinsukia district, arguably one of the largest on-shore oil-producing districts in India, the district disaster management plan does not identify the oil and gas industry production as a potential risk. 

Niranta Gohain, who hails from Natun Rongagora, a village whose 400-odd residents are yet to get compensated for crop, livestock and property losses, has written scores of letters reminding the Tinsukia district administration to put a stop to the expansion of the oil fields. “We understand that crude oil and gas are an important national asset and its exploitation provides energy security to millions of people. However, it has not been two years. Our cases are still being heard by the courts. We do not understand why OIL is setting up new rigs in the region, that are too close to the fragile habitat of MMW,” Gohain added, citing six new oil wells dug up since the blowout incident.  

When the Supreme Court-appointed committee led by former Gauhati High Court judge, B.P. Katakey met Tinsukia district administration 2021, and the Deputy Commissioner, Narsinh Pawar could not produce a disaster management plan that counted the Oil and Gas Industry among the hazards. “The current disaster management plan of Tinsukia does not identify oil and gas production-related risks in hazards, and ecosystem elements, such as MMW and DSBP as elements of risk reduction,” the Committee stated in its report submitted to the Supreme Court in April 2022. With no plan to mitigate disaster, the district does not have the standard operating procedure when faced with a disaster making the entire district with 14 lakh people vulnerable, as per the findings of the committee. When contacted Pawar was not available to comment on the issue.

Also vulnerable is the Dibru Saikhowa expanse comprising the MMW which is a complex ecosystem. The region – considered a ‘mosaic of diverse habitats consisting of grassland, swamps and mangrove like lowland tropical forests – relies on floods. Drained by tributaries of the Brahmaputra, waves of periodic floods ensure an exchange of sediments, nutrients and organisms between the wetlands and the rivers. As a result, the region plays an important role in mitigating the impact of human activity. “Human societies living in and around this region are embedded within ecological and biophysical processes taking place within the DSBP, MMW with the Brahmaputra River and its network which provides overarching hydrological and ecological connectivity,” the Supreme Court committee stated. The Report recognizes the relationship that humans thriving in these areas share with the ecosystems. 

The plans drawn by the Forest Department which monitors both DSBP and MMW were found to be ‘rudimentary’ by the Supreme Court Committee. “[Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve] Plan recognizes the inadequacy of funds and staff and thus its inability to effectively manage the biosphere reserve … Oil and gas well drilling and production operations have hardly any mention nor there is any plan to deal with pollution or any accident,” the Supreme Court committee stated. Similarly, the committee noted that the MMW management plan had not been implemented, and there is a lack of clarity on its formal approval. 

Zero protocol

The committee found that there has been no effort to improve the baseline data. Pollution Control Board of Assam, which has been entrusted with monitoring the water quality of MMW, relies on a single sample collected once a month. The committee’s discussions with PCBA revealed that the organization does not have the required capacity and infrastructure to monitor contaminants released after the blowout. The committee also found that the Forest Department was violating the Wetlands (Management and Conservation) Rules, 2017, which requires the zone of influence of any wetland to be demarcated with clear instructions on permissible and prohibited activities within this zone. Shockingly, no such effort has been undertaken by the Forest Department or committee for the management of MMW.   

The Committee also found out that OIL has no protocol to address oil or condensate spills in wetlands, terrestrial systems and ecologically sensitive areas. “This is a critical lapse given the high intensity of oil and gas operations around MMW and DSNP. The SOP examined by the Committee were generic, highly insufficient to address the impacts on sensitive ecosystems, in events such as the Baghjan incident,” the committee stated. The studies and assessments commissioned by OIL for redressing environmental damages, according to the Committee, were not strategically designed. “[The studies and assessments] may not address the pressing needs of ecological restoration and ensuring that the health of the ecosystems is maintained in the long run and the institutional and governance arrangements required for this purpose and put in place,” the Committee remarked.   

Supreme Court-appointed committee initially recommended Rs 2500 crores in its interim report submitted to the court in October as a cost of restoring the impact site and the surrounding regions including Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve. In the final report, the cost for redressal of the ‘damage inflicted by Baghjan accident’ was reduced considerably to Rs 1,196 crores. Former judge Katakey led committee reasoned that the final costs have lowered as the positive impact of floods cleaning the ecosystem, remediation work undertaken by the agencies hired by the OIL, reestablishment of area of influence and exclusion of costs of relocation of villages from Dibru Saikhowa. The Committee recommended the break up of Rs 1,196 crores into Rs 139 crores for the cost of ecological restoration of the accident site, Rs 432 crores for the ecological restoration of Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve and Rs 625 crores for livelihood and socio-economic aspects related to restoration.

Also Read: Fallout of oil exploration in Assam? Thousand bucks for cracked walls

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