Guwahati: The National Green Tribunal (NGT, eastern zone) accepted a new case against Oil India Limited (OIL) and other respondents on July 7 vis-à-vis the Baghjan oil-well blowout. This time, the grounds are that the wells contained gas-condensates and that OIL hadn’t taken the requisite precautions – a point the petitioners have said previous cases against OIL don’t consider.
On May 27, an oil-well at OIL’s Baghjan oil field began to leak gas and oil uncontrollably, displacing a few thousand people living in the field’s wider neighbourhood. About two weeks later, on June 9, the leak caught fire, and two OIL employees lost their lives. The fire continues to burn to this day, even as OIL and other disaster management experts continue to find a way to douse the inferno.
The NGT, represented by Justice S.P. Wangdi and expert member Nagin Nanda, had first observed that since three other cases (OA 41/2020, OA 43/2020 and OA 44/2020) had been filed against OIL in June, the court was “inclined” to dismiss the new petition, registered on July 1.
However, the tribunal admitted the petition after the applicants’ senior counsel submitted “that the specific question raised with regard to classification of gas condensate has not been raised in other cases, which, according to the applicants, would be relevant for the assessment of the environmental damage and remediation correctly.”
The new petition has now been tagged along with the other three for the next hearing, set for July 29. The case was filed by Soneswar Narah, a farmers’ rights activist; Mohammad Afreen Rahman, an agricultural consultant; and Samudrajit Gohain, a mining engineer. The defendants are OIL, the Pollution Control Board (PCB) of Assam, the Union environment ministry, the National Board for Wildlife and the Wildlife Institute.
According to experts, gas-condensate wells are highly inflammable and more toxic than ‘conventional’ oil wells to the local environment. In contact, natural gas condensates irritate the respiratory system, the eyes, the skin and the stomach are also caused by gas condensate.
The petitioners told The Wire that after scrutinising details of the Baghjan blowout incident, they determined that the three prior petitions had “missed out on some critical points that could have made OIL and the other parties severely accountable, as no precautionary measures akin to international measures were taken beforehand.”
The trio accused OIL and the other respondents in the petition of “hiding critical information from the public,” adding that “the incident was bound to happen sooner or later, and it was a systematic failure” on OIL’s part.
“The condensate mass is three to four times more than that of the gas,” Gohain explained to The Wire. “Any field or well [with] condensates is three to four times more likely to cause a blowout.”
According to him, even if the condensate accounts for a small fraction of the well’s contents, operators should have adopted blowout prevention measures as soon as they had evidence that condensates were present because the blowout is driven by the condensates. “The moment condensate is discovered during well-logging or exploratory survey, international-standard safety precautions should have been taken,” he said.
These precautions include two mechanical valves and a chemical valve during drilling and production. “If no condensate is present and only gas is, then only one chemical valve is sufficient to prevent blowouts,” he continued. “To the best of our knowledge, at the Baghjan well, no mechanical valves were used when [work was underway]. It seems only a chemical valve was used.”
Rahman, the agricultural consultant, said, “It is good that the NGT decided to hear our case based on the important points we have mentioned. The damage is already done and will take years for the local habitat to heal.”
Narah, with Rahman, also blamed the PCB: “The closure notice of June 19 by PCB explicitly [states] that OIL failed to submit an annual report of the wells over the years. Therefore, if they were aware that OIL was not [compliant], what stopped PCB from doing their due diligence over the years?”
On June 24, NGT had ordered the constitution of an eight-member committee of experts to visit and inspect the site, and submit a preliminary report in 30 days from the order. The tribunal also directed “OIL to deposit an initial amount of Rs 25 crore with the district magistrate, Tinsukia district, Assam,” and to “abide by further orders of the tribunal.”