Put new gas wells on hold until OIL has a disaster plan: Wildlife Institute

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New Delhi: A preliminary report by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) on the environmental damage caused due to Oil India Limited’s (OIL) gas well blowout at Baghjan in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, which started on May 27, has found that oil has leaked into adjoining Lohit river, polluting the water and adjoining Maguri-Motapung wetland with toxic pollutants.

Maguri-Motapung is located less than 10 km from Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and is a part of the Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve (DSBR).

The report, which has been submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and seen by HT, has recommended that the approved new wells and further exploration in the area should be put on hold until OIL authorities put in place their disaster-handling capabilities.

The report said a WII team conducted the survey from May 29 to June 4 and found several dead fish and insects that may have died due to oxygen depletion in the water following the oil spill.

The survey found the presence of at least five endangered Gangetic dolphins in the 20-kilometre stretch of the Lohit river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra river, indicating that the species will be at grave risk from the ongoing spill. The team has collected samples of tissue and blubber from a Gangetic dolphin carcass found in Maguri beel, which is being analysed for presence of various contaminants.

“The toxic fumes and oil coating has universally affected the area’s flora and fauna. The contaminants and oil are continuing to be released in the surrounding areas and immediate steps are needed to contain this spillover. The released toxins are known to have long-term persistence in soils and sediments, which will not only affect current life conditions, but due to sustained release, pose a serious health risk for a longer-term,” the report said.

The WII team has also gathered from the local residents that OIL authorities did not have a mitigation plan for such a disaster, and consequently suggested a comprehensive impact assessment of their field operations in the biodiversity-rich Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

“It’d be not only prudent but also essential for the well-being of all life forms that the approved new wells and further explorations in this area should be initiated only after a thorough investigation of potential impact, as well as evaluating disaster handling capabilities in place, with appropriate technology and trained manpower,” the report added.

WII has flagged that the environmental impacts of the oil spill will linger on for long.

This is because an oil well blowout spews hundreds of chemical particles in the air, water, and soil. The hydrocarbon component comprises hundreds of organic compounds, many of which are hazardous when released into the environment such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are also carcinogenic.

Local residents have complained of severe difficulty in breathing, headache and nausea to the visiting WII team, who, too, experienced similar symptoms due to the oil spill.

The entire landscape, including the wetland, is coated in layers of oil, according to the team.

The area, where blowout has taken place, is rich in biodiversity and one of the important remaining refuges for several endangered and range-restricted species, the report said.

DSBR is home to tiger, elephant, wild buffalo, leopard, hoolock gibbon, capped langur, slow loris, Ganges River dolphin besides critically endangered bird species such as the Bengal florican, white-winged wood duck, greater adjutant stork, white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture as well as the very rare and endemic black-breasted parrotbill.

The report has also pointed out that the entire region has undergone frequent changes in morphology due to recurrent earthquakes, which are known to have caused extensive landslides and ground fissuring, making the area disaster-prone.

On May 11, the MoEFCC had granted environmental clearance to OIL for extension pf drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

“The lowland forests of the region are unique. We’ve found leakages from other wells as well and they can have long-lasting impacts. We’ve recommended a thorough assessment of disaster mitigation possibilities before implementing further exploration projects,” said Qamar Qureshi, a scientist at WII.

WII will come out with a detailed report on the impact on biodiversity by the end of June.

“The wetland is affected, especially the aquatic species. The national park is slightly away from the accident site. We’re waiting for the detailed WII study and response from the Assam forest department. We’ve already written to them,” said Soumitra Dasgupta, additional director-general (wildlife), MoEFCC.

“We aren’t aware of the WII report. Whatever condensed oil had been released earlier has been burnt off. There’s no contamination from that spill anymore. We’re trying to contain the releasing gas within four weeks,” said an OIL spokesperson.

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