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Did human errors and SOP violations cause Oil India’s Baghjan gas well tragedy?

The curiosity among people is rising to know the facts about the worst industrial disaster of Assam – the Baghjan gas well tragedy of Oil India Limited (OIL).

Massive criticism against the PSU major OIL from different quarters are pouring in as the blaze has caused severe damage not only to humans, but also to the entire environment around as well.

The well no. 5 at Baghjan in Tinsukia district of Assam has been spewing gas uncontrollably since May 27 and it caught fire on June 9 afternoon. It soon turned into an inferno and killed two of OIL’s fire fighters at the site. The central and state governments, OIL and several independent agencies are carrying out a number of probes to unearth the cause of the major blowout and the successive blaze.

However, with every passing day, the state-run company is getting convinced, all that led to the disaster was because of human errors that killed two persons.

Many existing senior employees of OIL and experts as well as veterans from OIL and its big brother Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) said on condition of anonymity that several Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) were violated while working on the well.

An OIL staff opined that the company is convinced it was 90 per cent human error rather than a technical fault. Now, whether it was a judgmental error or a callous approach, it will be known after completion of the probe. The fault lies with OIL’s outsourced private well operator John Energy Private Limited also as they too did not follow the protocols and just obeyed “verbal instructions” from some OIL officials. Already two officials of the OIL have been suspended for alleged negligence of duty at the gas well site, while a show cause notice has been served on the Gujarat-based John Energy.

Remembering the day of the disaster, an employee present at the site when the blowout took place on May 27, said that they were trying to replace a damaged spool at the mouth of the well when the tragedy struck. For replacing the spool, the staff from OIL and John Energy removed the Blow Out Preventer (BOP) from the well. It is a routine maintenance exercise and the staff were about to complete their work. Suddenly at that moment, the gas had kicked and a blowout took place.

Senior staff of the OIL came to know that the people involved in the work violated some set parameters before removing the BOP, which prevents any kind of blowout in gas or oil wells. Before removing a BOP, the well is first killed by putting salt solution into it. This particular well was about 3,800 metres deep and a considerable portion was covered with this chemical mixed water. If the pressure is very high, then at times mud is put above the water. After the saline water was placed, a chemical mixed cement plug or barrier was placed at the bottom to seal the well so that nothing comes out to the mouth while BOP is removed.

Experts said that usually it takes 48 hours for the cement to get set and at times even more. However, it is learnt that the BOP was removed after 18 hours of putting the plug. This was the first major violation of the rules. Besides, before removing the BOP, the cement plug is checked whether it has taken a shape or not, but it is not sure as of now if this was done in the Baghjan well.

Another violation that the company people are gossiping about is that usually the plug is placed at the bottom. However, they have heard that it was placed at around 800 metres from the top, meaning almost 3,000 metres above from the bottom. It gave enormous space for the gas to acquire pressure momentum.

Moreover, the plug is usually of 70 metres tall, but now questions are being raised if the height was also compromised in this case.

Photo Courtesy: Oil India Limited

A former senior employee of ONGC, who is now a member of a probe committee on the tragedy, said when a blowout happens despite having a cement plug and huge amount of chemical water above it, the gas takes around one hour to attain the full pressure before coming out over the ground. “Just imagine, the gas has to travel around four km distance from the ground by pushing cement and large quantities of liquid. It cannot come out instantly. First it starts leaking through the cement and saline water, and then gradually these materials are pushed to the ground with rising gas pressure. Only then a blowout takes place. Usually, it takes around one hour to form the blowout from the first leaking of gas of this magnitude of pressure. I don’t know why nobody could judge it. They could have easily put the BOP back in this time gap.”

A retired employee of the OIL too said the blowout could have been avoided if the early signs from the well were read on time. According to him, when a blowout happens, the well gives some pressure hints. If those are not read properly, then accidents take place. “I am sure, this well also gave hints and the officials present there failed to read it,” he said.

The BOP of the Baghjan well was of 10,000 psi (pounds per square inch) and had more than 12 nut-bolts. So, even if the workers and the officials present at the site had tied two nuts after placing the BOP on the well mouth immediately, this blowout could have been avoided.

The rest of the bolts could be tightened gradually, the experts opined. Another working employee of the OIL informed that the crucial BOP should be removed only in presence of a senior technical person, but it is learnt that he was not present at the site in Baghjan during the unfortunate day. This was a clear violation from the set protocols.

The retired OIL and ONGC officials, however, accepted that this particular blowout was of massive proportion compared to smaller ones that regularly take place on wells and controlled internally, and the exact reasons for this will be known only after the enquiry reports are available.

Regarding the role of the private operator John Energy, a senior OIL official said that they usually operate on the instructions of the PSU major. But they too have a rule book and if they follow it strictly, nobody can force them to do anything out of the set norms.

The Ahmedabad-headquartered John Energy did not question the violations and became a partner in breaking the laid down norms.

Photo Courtesy: Oil India Limited

OIL is not speaking anything officially and tight-lipped when asked about the above mentioned independent findings. Their official spokesperson only requested all to wait for the outcomes of the enquiry committees.

At present five inquiries are taking place to find out the facts — a three-member probe by the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, a one-member probe by Assam chief minister and an internal five-member inquiry by the OIL. Besides, two more crucial independent investigations of technical nature are being carried out by the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS) and the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD). Apart from these, the chief minister also ordered the Additional Principal Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) to conduct a study on the effects of the explosion on the environment and ecology of the surrounding areas, including on flora and fauna in the adjacent Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.

While these probes are ongoing, two separate interim orders were pronounced by the Pollution Control Board, Assam (PCBA) and National Green Tribunal (NGT). The first order, which was passed very hastily with several loopholes and was withdrawn even at a faster pace, was issued by the PCBA. Citing a number of violations by the PSU major, PCBA on June 19 issued a ‘Closure Notice’ to shut all operations of Baghjan oil field, which has a total of 22 producing wells, including 18 crude and 4 gas wells. The oil field has been in operation since 2003. PCBA alleged that the company did not obtain required permissions for the Baghjan oil fields, but OIL categorically denied it and claimed it has “PCBA’s consent” for its all operations in the state. OIL further threatened to drag the Assam government’s pollution control watchdog to the Gauhati High Court if the PCBA order was not withdrawn. Even Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal expressed his displeasure over the PCBA order and asked the authorities to be “more sensible”. Finally three days after slapping the ‘Closure Notice’, the PCBA withdrew its order on June 22 with five conditions.

In the second order, the NGT on June 24 imposed an interim penalty of Rs 25 crore on OIL over its failure to stop fire in the Baghjan well that is damaging the environment. Also, the bench comprising Justice SP Wangdi and expert member Siddhanta Das constituted a committee headed by former high court judge BP Katakey to look into the matter and submit a report in 30 days. The committee also comprises member secretary of Central Pollution Control Board, senior expert from Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Sarbeswar Kalita of Guwahati University, former forest Biodiversity Board member Abhay Kumar Johari, Ajit Kumar Hazarika, ex-chairman of ONGC among others. The order came on a plea filed by activist Bonani Kakkar and others alleging failure of the authorities in preventing the blowout of Baghjan oil well.

However, a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel on July 3 deferred the direction to deposit Rs 25 crore till the actual amount and its disbursement plan are worked out by the committee formed by it.

Oil industry experts said that had the well caught fire on the first day itself, there would not have been any damage to life and property in and around Baghjan as spouting gas and condensate droplets for 15 days got spread to a vast area, thereby burning almost everything in a radius of one km.

Though there is no fire in the periphery of the well site at present, the company has declared an area up to 1.5 km of radius as ‘Red Zone’ to avoid any untoward incident and damage to the general public. Apart from fire tenders of the company, the Army, Air Force, IOC, Assam Gas Company and the state fire service were pressed in to control the blaze from expanding to nearby areas.

Photo Courtesy: PTI

About controlling the raging blaze, the experts said now after the well caught fire, OIL can do nothing to control it with its limited resources. ONGC has some expertise and they are already helping at the site. In the entire world, no drilling and exploration company has experts to control such a massive blowout. There are only three blowout management firms in the world and one of them is already present there. The three experts from the Singaporean firm Alert Disaster Control are working at the site. Three more foreign experts from the US and Canada joined them later to douse the fire.

Another former official of the OIL said that there are only two options left at present to douse the flame and control the gas leak from the well. The first option is an ‘Extra-Ordinary Blast’ at the mouth of the well to cut the oxygen for a fraction of second to put out the fire, but this is very difficult to do. The second option is to wait till the gas supply from the bottom of the well is exhausted or disrupted naturally. This will also douse the flame.

After the well caught fire, OIL officially stated that it will take around a month to completely put out the fire. The former employees and the experts asserted that this Baghjan well will most likely be dead after controlling the gas leak and it is advisable to plug it permanently for the future.

At present, a multi-agency, comprising OIL, ONGC, Indian Army, Alert Disaster Control and district administration, effort is going on to control the well and douse the flame.

The blaze that started on June 9 at the well was so massive that it could be seen from a distance of more than 30 kms with thick black smoke going up several metres high, endangering the local biodiversity in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park following the blowout on May 27. The two OIL firefighters had gone missing after the well caught fire and their bodies were recovered by an NDRF team the next day from a wetland abutting the site. Prima facie it looked like that they jumped into the water and got drowned as there was no mark of burn injury. However, the exact cause would be ascertained only after a post mortem, OIL spokesperson had said earlier.

The duo was identified as Durlov Gogoi and Tikheswar Gohain, both Assistant Operators of the fire service department of the company, the official said. Gogoi was a renowned football player of Assam and represented the state at several national tournaments in Under-19 and Under-21 teams. Presently, he was playing as the goalkeeper of the Oil India football team.

A PIL was filed at the Gauhati High Court by environmentalist-cum-entrepreneur Niranta Gohain against OIL, John Energy, the Centre and the State for the PSU major’s Baghjan gas well blowout and successive fire, but it was dismissed by a Bench comprising Chief Justice Ajai Lamba and Justice Soumitra Saikia. An FIR has also been registered against Oil India and its outsourced private well operator John Energy for the Baghjan gas well blowout, which has allegedly polluted the environment and village surroundings.

The site near the oil and gas blowout and fire at Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district | Photo: Bidyut Kalita

Meanwhile, OIL is losing its crude and gas productions heavily post the fire incident with locals and various student organisations resorting to blockade and agitations at various well sites. The company informed that due to the agitation, there was production loss of 9,072 MT of crude oil and 11.61 MMSCM of natural gas from wells across Upper Assam since May 27.

The Indian Army was called on to assist the local police in maintaining law and order situation at the OIL sites and facilitating the re-location of the dispersed villagers. More than 9,000 villagers in and around the Baghjan well were shifted to 13 relief camps set up by the OIL and Tinsukia district administration.

Environmentalists, locals and various groups have alleged that due to seepage of crude, condensate and other chemicals from the gas well, there have been large-scale damage to the ecology of the area, especially to the Maguri-Motapung Beel wetland and a portion of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.

Earlier, pictures of carcasses of a river dolphin and some dead fishes claiming to be in Maguri Motapung Beel, which is adjacent to Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and about 1.5 km from the incident site, went viral on social media. Following this, the Assam Forest department had issued a notice to OIL on May 29 seeking details of the incident. OIL informed that various assessments and impact studies of the blowout as well as the blaze in villages and nearby forest areas by multiple agencies such as ERM India, TERI, CSIR-NEIST and Assam Agricultural University are going on at present.

Whether the damage to the ecology is temporary or permanent, only time will tell… The perennial question of ‘development or nature’ has come to the forefront again with the Baghjan tragedy. And not only the governments or the corporate, but the time has come for the public to realise the importance of this question and find answers for themselves, for the future of the world!

(The story was first published in the personal blog of the author)


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