Life and livelihood threat from Assam gas leak fires

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Kanishtha Singh, Ground Report:

A gas well of Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district has been “uncontrollably” leaking gas for the last 15 days. People have been evacuated from surrounding areas while two firefighters lost their lives. The massive blaze can be seen from a distance of more than 30 km with thick black smoke going up several metres high, endangering local biodiversity at the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park following the blowout on May 27.

A day after a blowout from a gas well in Assam’s Tinsukia district caught fire, Oil India Limited(OIL) firefighters Durlov Gogoi (35) and Tikheswar Gohain (55) were recovered from a pond near the well site, authorities said. The fire burst exactly two weeks after a gas well in the area had started leaking gas and condensate uncontrollably. In simple words, it was a blowout.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Baghjan oil field in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, operated by Oil India Limited (OIL), blaze into fires. Two firefighters lost their lives so far. The loss of land, livelihoods, houses and irreplaceable flora and fauna is yet to be estimated in brief.

The company has not yet been able to demonstrate what exactly provoked the blaze. There were clearing operations at the site when the fire broke out. But a blaze is almost inescapable after a blowout, with highly inflammable gas flowing uncontrollably in an area packing with iron pipes and heavy machinery, all it requires is some traction.To prevent a fire, Oil India Limited had been maintaining a “water umbrella” by continuously spraying water over the area.

“We were lucky that it did not happen earlier”, said the spokesperson of Oil India Limited, Tridiv Hazarika. But fortune didn’t favoured on the after the afternoon of June 9th, as many people from bordering areas back from their houses to see their houses ruined on Tuesday.

There have been protests that Oil India Limited claimed were destructive and loaded their relief operations. The Assamese press has been crucial, accusing Oil India for being informal in its containment efforts. The blame has been consensual, firstly, that the blowout was a result of insufficient safety measures. Secondly, that preventive measure were taken very late that too very little. The company has now said that it could take four more weeks to bring things under control.

Most employees called for anonymity as the company has issued strict orders withholding anyone except the designated spokesperson from talking to the media. A retired geologist with 32 years of experience of working at the company put Oil India Limited responsible. He said that thhe company failed to develop the required in-house skills to deal with blowouts, despite having undergone because of this in the past.

In 2005, after a blowout in one of its oil wells in Dikom in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district took 45 days and foreign experts to be stabilised. The company set up a unit to deal with such crisis. However, both current and former employees alleged the company had invested very little in developing cutting-edge technology equipment and training the unit’s personnel.

The retired geologist also said, while he understood the unwillingness of the company to invest huge amounts of money in a “workforce that would remain idle for most of the year”, he did not understand why the company had not signed an annual contract with foreign blowout control companies.

“You should at least have an MoU in place that mandates experts to arrive in not more than two days using a chartered airplane instead of blaming the pandemic lockdown,” he added.

First, as the standard protocol goes, the well was “killed”. Outside pressure exceeding the pressure at the old production zone was applied using a brine solution. The objective was to prevent gas from rising to the surface.

Then, the blowout preventer, a large valve that is mounted on top of the well to keep a tab on the pressure of the gas and to seal it, was installed. Then began the actual workover operation. A cement barrier was laid to isolate the old producing zone. According to two Oil India Limited employees aware of the operation, cementing work had been completed on May 26.

Finally, a functionary of the company’s workers’ union accused privatisation. “We are accused of being too slow because we put safety first. This is a textbook case of a private contractor being in a rush to finish the job” said Tridiv Hazarika. He declined to address specific allegations. The company had ordered an in-house specialized audit, he said. “It could be a machine failure, a process downfall, a human mistake or a combination of the three – let the results of the audit come out” he added.

There are several ways to shut a blowout. Oil India Limited aims to place a blowout preventer, which weighs around three tonnes, on the well. For that, a “hydraulic lander” that can get out of obstacles is being made in the company’s central workshop in Duliajan.

But there are many barriers. Apart from the cranes and heavy machinery, there stood the drilling mast – a telephone tower like structure. This tower strengthens the weight of the drilling pipes and allows them to be lifted in and out of the oil well. According to an official involved in the exercise,”Any contact with the mask would lead to friction which could lead to ignition.”

Firefighters who died in the gas leak.

Two firefighters of Oil India Ltd who had been missing were found dead at a wetland near the site of a massive oil well fire in Assam. The oil well in upper Assam’s Tinsukia district that has been leaking gas for 14 days caught fire on Tuesday.

Firefighters Durlov Gogoi (35) and Tikheswar Gohain(55) killed while fighting a fire caused by gas leak. Gogoi loved his football and Gohain was about to get retired after 3 decades of serving to company.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has augmented his condolences. In a release, the Chief Minister said the two had made a “supreme sacrifice for the the greater interest of the the society”.He also directed that their last rites will be performed with state honours. A sum of Rs 1 crore and Rs 60 lakhs have been announced to the families of Tikheshwar and Durlov the sums based on their years of service at Oil India. The families would also receive pension and other financial benefits, and one eligible member from each family would be given a job in OIL.

Both Durlov and Tikheswar were AssistantOperators of OIL’s Fire Services department.”The two jumped into a pond near the well site sadly, they couldn’t make it.said the General manager at OIL.

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