Four weeks needed to restore Assam gas well leak; locals fear impact on biodive...

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Oil India Limited’s (OIL) gas well blowout in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district that caught fire on Tuesday afternoon will take around four weeks to be completely restored, according to OIL authorities.

On Tuesday, OIL authorities said that the well caught fire while clearing operations were being carried out at the site. “No casualty has been reported. Fire tenders are at the site controlling the spread of fire…there’re violent protests around the well site,” the statement said.

OIL has made a request to the chief secretary, Assam, and Tinsukia district administration for maintaining law and order at the site.

All OIL and Oil & Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) officials have been evacuated from nearby areas.

Experts from Singapore-based Alert Disaster Control, who are currently on a visit to the site, and OIL, ONGC employees will return to the spot after the situation is brought under control.

“The situation demands the arrangement of large quantities of water, installation of high discharge pumps, and removal of debris. All the operations as per the Acute Launch Emergency Reliability Tip (ALERT) will take about four weeks,” the statement added.

Baghjan, where the gas well blowout took place on May 27 and has been continuously leaking condensed oil and gas, is located adjacent to Dibru Saikhowa National Park; Maguri-Motapung wetlands and forest villages of Barekuri -- a habitat to the endangered Hoolock Gibbon.

“We’ve written a letter to the Assam forest department for a report on the situation. Besides, we’ve asked a team from the Wildlife Institute of India, which is posted there for some other projects, to make an assessment and give us a report. The cause of concern is that the gas well is still leaking,” said Soumitra Dasgupta, additional director-general (wildlife), Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC).

“The Chief Wildlife Warden Assam, MK Yadava, is slated to visit the spot. We’re awaiting his briefing,” said Sanjay Kumar, director-general (forests), MoEFCC.

Local wildlife activists said the biodiversity of the region might be lost, as condensed oil had leaked into several important sites of the landscape.

“We’ve seen dead birds on Wednesday morning. A flying squirrel was also found dead. On Tuesday, a Great Pied Hornbill was rescued from the blowout site. The impact on wildlife could be massive,” said Rofikul Islam, a naturalist, who visits the place regularly.

“At least 50-60 houses are gutted. Angry villagers are protesting against the OIL authorities. They’ve also fought with some fire control personnel. There is a massive impact on the fragile ecology of the region. The fire has unlikely to have entered Dibru Saikhowa National Park, even though it’s located close to the site. But the village, the grasslands that were already soaked in condensed oil from the blowout and continuous oil leak since May 27 have all caught fire. The impact on wildlife is yet to be assessed because of the raging fire. This is tragic,” said Mridupaban Phukon, a Tinsukia-based student and wildlife activist,

“Environmental clearances are often given on the premise that environmental damage will not happen, or if it does happen, it will be mitigated. This spill shows us how there’s little ability to mitigate. The area is part of a biodiversity hotspot and is recorded range of some of India’s most restricted range and endangered birds, such as the White-winged wood duck, the Bengal Florican, and White-bellied heron. The heron is now found mostly in Bhutan, with less than 10 seen in India. These three are the kind of species that have historically been rare. It’s a shame to endanger the few places left on earth for them. We can hardly quantify the damage of an oil spill for aquatic species that live underwater,” said Neha Sinha, a conservation biologist.

According to a 2013 site inspection report, regarding oil and gas pipelines in Upper Assam by conservation scientists and former members of National Board for Wildlife, MD Madhusudan and Prerna Singh Bindra, the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve meet at the confluence of the Brahmaputra with three of the country’s easternmost rivers — the Siang, Dibang and Lohit.

The park shaped by these rivers is spread over 765 square kilometres (sq km), of which 340 sq km form the core and comprise wetlands, alluvial grasslands, riverine forests, swamps, and semi-evergreen forests, including the largest willow swamp forest in north-east India.

Dibru-Saikhowa has recorded over 40 mammals, 500 species of birds, 104 fish species, 105 butterfly species, and 680 types of plants. It harbours the tiger, elephant, wild buffalo, leopard, hoolock gibbon, capped langur, slow loris, Gangetic dolphin, besides critically endangered bird species such as the Bengal Florican, White Winged Duck, Greater 8 Adjutant stork, White-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture as well as the very rare and endemic Black-breasted parrotbill.

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