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Assam Gas Leak and Fire: NGT directs OIL to pay Rs 25 crore deposit in connection to Baghjan tragedy

Written by Tora Agarwala
| Guwahati |

Published: June 25, 2020 10:24:00 pm

Tridiv Hazarika, spokesperson, OIL said that the company “respects and welcomes the NGT order.” (Express Photo by Diganta Rajkhowa)

The National Green Tribunal Thursday directed government-owned Oil India Limited (OIL) to deposit an initial amount of Rs 25 crore to Assam’s Tinsukia district administration, after hearing two petitions in connection with the Baghjan blowout tragedy.

The ecological disaster at Baghjan in Tinsukia district was precipitated by a blowout at well number 5, reported on May 27. On June 9, the well—located close to the Dibru-Saikhowa national park—caught fire, leading to the deaths of two OIL firefighters. Around 11,000 people from the surrounding villages are now in relief camps set up by the administration. Both the Central and state governments have instituted inquiries to probe the incident.

“In view of the prima facie case made out against OIL on the extent of damage caused to the environment and biodiversity, damage to both human and wildlife, public health and, having regard to the financial worth of the Company and the extent of damage, we direct the OIL to deposit an initial amount of ?25 Crores with the District Magistrate, Tinsukia District, Assam and shall abide by further orders of the Tribunal” stated the order.

On Thursday, a principal bench of the NGT — comprising Justice S P Wangdi and expert member Siddhanta Das — heard two separate petitions via video-conference: one by Kolkata-based environmentalist Banani Kakkar (Original Application No. 43/2020/EZ) and the other by WildLife and Environment Conservation Organisation (Original Application No. 44/2020/EZ) which works for conservation awareness in Upper Assam districts.

As per the NGT order, the petitioners alleged that OIL had failed to prevent the blowout at Baghjan 5, resulting in “a massive fire causing irreparable loss to the entire biodiversity of the region and loss of lives and property.”

Apart from the deposit, the bench also constituted an eight-member Committee of Experts — to be chaired by Justice BP Katakey (former judge of the Gauhati High Court) — to investigate the matter and submit its preliminary report within 30 days. The committee also includes Member Secretaries of both the Central and State Pollution Control Board, a senior expert from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), District Magistrate of Tinsukia district, as well as Dr Sarbeswar Kalita, Professor and Head of the Department of Environment Science, Gauhati University, Abhay Kumar Johari, former member of Biodiversity Board andi Ajit Hazarika, Ex- Chairman, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGCL).

The Committee of Experts has to specifically investigate the cause of leak; extent of loss and damage caused to human life, wildlife and environment; damage and health hazard caused to the public; whether there were any mitigation measures put in place by OIL to offset the incidents, among others.

“While dealing with the above questions, the Committee may also dwell on the action taken thus far either by the Government or by the OIL or by any other agency and the expenditure incurred towards mitigation. Opportunity may also be provided to the Respondent OIL to give its views and submissions” said the order.

Tridiv Hazarika, spokesperson, OIL said that the company “respects and welcomes the NGT order.” “They have formed a high level committee which will supervise the process and they will hear OIL’s version of events too,” said Hazarika.

About the 25 crore sum, Hazarika said, “Yes, it is a stress on us. How ever profitable a company might be, money is always a stress,” he said, adding that OIL had been incurring losses since February- March — first with crude oil prices plummeting, then COVID-19, and now the blowout. “The blockades by local people in various OIL installations have also cost us a loss of 12-15 crores,” he said, adding that the company had so far spent 5.6-6 crore on compensation. As per an OIL release on Thursday, cumulative production loss since May 27 due to bandhs and blockades is “8482 MT Crude oil, 10.85 MMSCM of natural gas”.

The Baghjan oilfield has 21 functioning wells — four of them are gas wells (including the one that reported the blowout) and 17 are oil wells. Earlier this month, the Pollution Control Board Assam had issued a closure notice to all operations at the Baghjan oilfield for functioning without proper permissions as well as a number of environmental transgressions. However, the pollution watchdog withdrew the notice three days later, subject to conditions.

The NGT order stated that the matter will be heard again on July 29.

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