Closure notice to Assam gas field over blowout

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The Assam Pollution Control Board issued a closure notice on Friday to the Baghjan oilfield of Oil India Limited (OIL) on the grounds that the company has been operating it without prior permissions, including the key “consent to establish” and “consent to operate” clearances.

Any industry likely to discharge effluents or emit pollutants is supposed to get these permissions from the state pollution control boards under the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and the Air (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

A blowout that began in the oilfield on May 27 led to the uncontrollable flow of oil from gas well 5 -- causing extensive damage to biodiversity and wildlife the region, according to a preliminary report on the environmental damage caused by the incident. The wildlife in the region includes, among several other species, the endangered hoolock gibbons and the Gangetic dolphins.

There are 17 oil wells and five gas wells in the Baghjan oil field, Baghjan oil field generates 1,200 kilolitres of crude oil per day and 1.5 to 2 million metric standard cubic metres per day of gas. OIL supplies crude oil to several refineries including Digboi refineries in Assam, it also supplies gas to various power companies and fertiliser companies and 400+ tea estates according to OIL.

The letter issued to OIL — a copy has been reviewed by HT — states that the Baghjan oilfield in Assam’s Tinsukia district is located at a distance of only 500 metres from the Maguri-Motapung wetland, which is a part of the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, which is “severely affected” by OIL’s “negligence”.

According to the letter,OIL was required to take adequate measures to prevent spillage of hazardous waste into water bodies through designated drains and treatment facilities. The environment clearance granted to OIL was also on the condition that the company install a blowout prevention system to avoid accidents during drilling.

“But you have failed to do it,” the letter stated.

“It is observed that you have been operating your production as well as drilling installations without being equipped with proper safety and precautionary measures for which major accidents are occurred at the drilling sites,” the letter added.

The board has sweeping powers over projects in eco-sensitive zonesunder Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

“We have ordered complete closure because of their negligent behaviour,” DN Das, member secretary of the Assam Pollution Control Board, said.

An OIL spokesperson said the consent was already sought. “We have applied for consent to operate a number of times, and even deposited fee for it with the pollution control board. The consent has come through for certain installations, rest are pending,” said Tridiv Hazarika.

“The PCB had mailed us on June 11 asking us for details of various permissions and data. We had asked for time to reply. It’s a 15-year-old oil field. We managed to send them a response on June 18 but got a closure notice on June 19. It’s not technically possible to close the wells immediately as it will affect reservoirs. Many industries are dependent on OIL for their operations. We are also considering a legal option for a stay on the closure order,” the spokesperson added.

Later on Sunday, OIL issued a press release saying it intends to file a writ petition before the Gauhati high court challenging the pollution control board order. It also said that an environment impact assessment study of the blowout and fire was pending.

A preliminary report on the damage, by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) found that oil had leaked into the principal stream of Lohit river, polluting the water and the adjoining Maguri-Motapung wetland. “The toxic fumes and oil coating have universally affected flora and fauna. The contaminants and oil are continuing to be released and immediate steps are needed to contain this spill over. The toxins released are known to have long-term persistence in soils and sediments,” the report said.

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