Assam gas well fire rages on, two firefighters killed

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Guwahati: The fire that broke out on Tuesday at Oil India Limited’s (OIL) gas well in Assam’s Tinsukia district has claimed the lives of two firefighters including that of a former 30-year-old national-level footballer, officials said on Wednesday and added the inferno is unlikely to be controlled anytime sooner.

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel recovered bodies of assistant fire operators Durlov Gogoi, a former goalkeeper who represented Assam, and Tikheswar Gohain, 56 from a water body close to the well. The two, who went missing on Tuesday, were working to control the blowout, or leakage of gas and condensate, from the well when it caught fire. The blowout began on May 27.

“It was a difficult operation to retrieve the bodies as the water was warm and fire at the well was blowing very high. The two bodies were found close to each other,” said NDRF inspector Saurabh Singh.

In a statement, OIL said immediate compensation has been disbursed to the families of the two. Five other people, who were working at the well when it caught fire, have received minor injuries.

Nearly 2,000 families, which were evacuated because of the blowout beyond a radius of 1.5 km from the well, have now been shifted even further and housed in 12 relief camps.

Residents of the area on Tuesday staged a protest near the site and blamed OIL for failing to control the blowout for two weeks.

The well is located near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the eco-sensitive Maguri Mottapung wetland, which are home to endangered hoolock gibbons and Gangetic dolphins.

The statement said a team of experts from Alert Disaster Control, Singapore, visited the well site on Wednesday to assess the situation and to prepare for the next course of action.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s office said Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured the state of all help to tackle the situation.

OIL said the foreign experts have expressed confidence about controlling the fire and capping the well safely, but the operation requires a large amount of water, installation of high discharge pumps, and removal of debris. All these could take nearly four weeks, it added.

A similar fire at an abandoned oil well in Dibrugarh was controlled after over a month with the help of foreign experts in 2005.

Experts have warned the fire and the blowout could have a damaging impact on the flora and fauna of the national park and the wetland a few hundred metres away.

“Release of particulate matter and the fire will affect Dibru Saikhowa National Park. But the damage to Maguri Mottapung wetland will be immense. If this continues for another four weeks, humans will also not remain unaffected by the pollution,” said environmentalist Rituraj Phukan, who is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Two days after the blowout, a carcass of a Gangetic dolphin with its skin peeled was found at the wetland. There is no confirmation yet on whether it died due to the release of gas and condensate from the well.

“There are few methods to control a blowout. First, the area near the affected well is cleared of all debris. One of the oldest techniques is to carry out a blast at the well so that there is lack of oxygen and gas [or oil] in the area and the fire gets doused,” said an oil drilling expert, who refused to be named.

“Another method is to drill another well or wells near the site and connect them to the blow out well allowing the gas or oil to get diverted. Another option is to put a new Blow out Preventer (BoP), which are large valves used to cap the well on the surface.”

During the process, a large amount of water has to be continuously sprayed to control the fire and to lower the temperature so that the new BoP does not heat up too much. The entire process needs a lot of planning and coordination and can easily take weeks.

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