Article writer – Arpita Mohanty, M.Sc., Ecology & Environmental Sciences, Pondicherry University

Oil and natural gas fires are disastrous and they are dangerous because they are spontaneous. But on 9th June 2020 when a massive fire broke out at the Baghjan oil well in Assam’s Tinsukia district, it was anything but spontaneous. The warning signs were there prior to two weeks and what followed was the result of pure human negligence.

The blowout at the Oil India Ltd. well which has been active since 2006 occurred on May 27 resulting in the continuous spewing of natural gas for almost two weeks. While the state-owned company was busy bringing in experts from Singapore to control the situation, the gas leak had already taken the form of a massive inferno. The fire is so big that black plumes of smokes can be seen even from Dhemaji at night, which is nearly 200 kilometers away.

Till now two lives have been lost and many more have started becoming sick due to several respiratory ailments. More than 1,500 families from nearby areas have been evacuated, rendering nearly 7,000 people homeless. Most of them are farmers whose paddy fields and tea gardens have been completely destroyed. Not only this but also the layer of gas condensate that is getting deposited on their lands will keep the soil uncultivable for years.

The material loss is heavy but the ecological loss is irreparable. The Baghjan gas well is situated close to two ecologically hypersensitive areas, the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and the Maguri-Motapung Beel wetland covering an area of 650 square kilometers. The area falls within the Himalaya and Indo- Burma biogeographic region, one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. DSNP, known for its population of feral horses, is home to 36 species of mammals and 382 species of birds. Maguri Beel, classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) has 293 species of birds and is a heaven for ornithologists.

The disaster is degrading the air, water, and soil quality of the area by increasing the temperature and adding toxic oil residues. Toxic hydrocarbons and particulate matters are being released affecting the birds and the aquatic lives. The heatwave is burning vegetation and agricultural crops. Oil spills are forming a layer in nearby water bodies killing a large number of fishes and amphibians. A carcass of an endangered Gangetic dolphin was recovered just a day after the blowout from Maguri Beel. Conservationists have warned that it’s only the beginning. In the long run, the effects will be the entering of these toxic compounds into the ecological food chain and the contamination of groundwater due to oil seepage.

If we try to trace the origin of the problem then we will stumble at the very first point where the permission and environment clearance was given to OIL for drilling at an ecologically sensitive zone. And if we start blaming, then sooner or later each one of us who is enjoying the luxury of automobiles will have a finger pointed at our faces. So what is the solution? The solution is to stop being indifferent to our gradually degrading environment and acknowledging the fact that a burnt house can be restored within months but a charred wetland will take decades to restore even half of its charm. Only then will it hit us hard and make us think twice before taking any environment harming steps.