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2 Missing Firefighters Found Dead Near Assam Oil Well Amid Efforts to Control Blaze, NDRF Team Deployed

It has been 14 days since a blowout was reported in the OIL gas well on May 27.
(Credit: News18)

It has been 14 days since a blowout was reported in the OIL gas well on May 27. (Credit: News18)

The Baghjan oil well located in Assam's Tinsukia district, which has been spewing gas uncontrollably for the last two weeks, caught fire on Tuesday.

The bodies of two firefighters, who died battling the massive blaze at Baghjan oil well in Assam’s Tinsukia district, were recovered by a forest team and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel from a waterbody near the natural gas well site of Oil India Limited (OIL) on Wednesday. The deceased have been identified as Durlabh Gogoi and Tikheswar Gohain.

Official sources said the fire that broke out Tuesday afternoon has “reduced considerably” after efforts by the district administration, military and emergency services.

“It was difficult for our swimmers to retrieve the bodies because of the heat and searing temperatures due to the fire, but we managed to recover two bodies with the help from forest officials who used drones to locate the bodies,” said an NDRF personnel on ground.

Meanwhile, Indian Air Force (IAF) is assisting the civil administration with three fire tenders to douse the flames. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal called upon Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to request for deployment of IAF in the operation. He also sought the intervention of Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan while directing the Tinsukia district administration and Assam police to ensure the safety of the people in the affected areas.

On Wednesday, Chief Minister Sonowal held a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and apprised him of the current situation. He was assured all help and support by the Prime Minister.

It has been 14 days since a blowout was reported in the OIL gas well on May 27 as ‘pressure control systems’ failed during Work Over operations to produce gas from a new sand (oil-and-gas bearing) reservoir at a depth of 3,729 metres. The exploration was done by the Gujarat-based outsourcing company, John Energy.

For experts at the site, reducing the flames remain a priority. Sources said that some of the immediate measures would be to clear up a substantial area for safe operations and constantly use water to keep the atmosphere cool. Heavy duty pumps have been pressed into service, and an arrangement for creating a ‘water umbrella’ is in progress along with digging a water reservoir and laying of delivery lines from the source to the site of operation.

In a statement released by OIL after the incident, it was stated that all operations would take about four weeks, and well control operations will be initiated once the fire is brought under control. However, officials have sought help from the district administration in maintaining law and order in wake of protests around the site.

“The well caught fire while the clearing operations were on. The situation can be brought under control and the well can be capped safely. There are violent protests around the well site. A request has been made to the State government for maintaining law and order so that experts can enter the site and start well control operations,” said an OIL spokesperson.

An emergency meeting was held on Tuesday between OIL, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) officials and the three-member team of disaster control experts from Singapore. The statement read – “the situation demands arrangement of large quantities of water, installation of high discharge pumps and removal of debris. All the operations as per ALERT (Singapore firm) will take about four weeks. Efforts will be made to reduce this timeframe as much as possible.”

Chief Minister Sonowal appealed to people not to panic and cooperate with authorities, assuring them that both the state government and the Centre have been taking all measures for their safety.

“The law and order situation now under control. Foreign experts are inspecting the site and the flames have reduced considerably since last evening, the blaze is now confined to the well site,” said Siladitya Chetia, Tinsukia Superintendent of Police.

Over 2500 people from 1610 families living in and around Baghjan were evacuated with the help of NDRF and taken to relief camps. The gas oil field in Tinsukia is located next to the Dilgullturrung tea estate and the Maguri Beel wetland.

While several houses have been gutted in flames, an assessment of the environment impact is being initiated. A team from Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat is studying the impact on vegetation in the area. Sample collection and daily scientific analysis is being carried out by experts around the site. With the area around Baghjan heating up due to the massive fire and uncontrollable blowout from the gas well, patrolling is not possible at the Dibru Saikhowa National Park with wildlife being under constant threat. The Eco Sensitive Zone of the park is only 300 metres away while the Core Zone is 860 metres from the well site.

“No patrolling is possible now, and we have already evacuated our staff from two camps on May 30. No visible damage seen, so far, but we are at risk. The condensate along with gas is impacting the park,” said Rajendra Singh Bharti, Divisional Forest Officer of Tinsukia Wildlife Division.

Wildlife biologists and marine observers are also studying the impact of environmental change due to oil exploration. The Baghjan blowout is considered the second in 15 years at an OIL installation. Earlier in 2005, it took 45 days to control the blowout at Dikom in Dibrugrah district.

“We cannot recreate nature and biodiversity. The planners need to review to exclude our pristine wildlife areas for such exploration in future. All other similar activities presently going on in such areas should be closed,” said Wildlife Biologist and Joint Director of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

first published:June 10, 2020, 11:27 IST