A huge fire broke out at an oil field near popular ecotourism spots in Assam yesterday, after gas that had spewed for two weeks from a blown-out well ignited, officials said. The gas well at an oil field managed by Oil India started leaking in late May in Tinsukia district of the northeastern state, and the firm said late last week gas was still flowing ‘uncontrollably. Yesterday’s explosion sent bright orange flames and huge, black plumes of smoke high into the sky, visible 10km from the oil field.
‘While the clearing operations were on at the well site, the well caught fire, Oil India said in a statement, adding that a firefighter suffered ‘minor injuries. Around 200 engineers and workers including a team of experts who arrived from Singapore on Monday are trying to stem the leak within four weeks, the company added. Villagers fled in fear, and said five of their homes had caught fire. ‘The situation is very bad. It is spreading. I knew it was going to happen, local environmentalist Niranta Gohain said. The company called for help from the army after locals allegedly attacked its vehicles after yesterday’s explosion, spokesman Tridiv Hazarika said. Water was being pumped to the well over the past two weeks to prevent the gas catching fire. Assam’s Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said firefighters, police and the army were being sent to the site, which is 500km east of Guwahati, the state’s biggest city. Environmentalists were increasingly worried about the impact of the gas leak. The well was producing 100,000 standard cubic metres per day (SCMD) of gas from a depth of 3,870m before the blowout in May, according to Oil India. Just 1km from the field is Maguri-Motapung wetlands, an ecotourism site. State-owned sanctuary Dibru Saikhowa National Park renowned for migratory birds is about 2.5km away. Authorities had established an exclusion zone of 1.5km and about 2,500 people had been evacuated from their homes. The Assam Pollution Control Board chairman, Y Suryanarayana, told the Indian Express newspaper the gas was spreading to a radius of 5km, with the condensate ‘mostly falling on bamboo, tea gardens, banana trees and betel nut trees. Local birding guide and wildlife photographer Binanda Hatiboruah said the condensate was covering water bodies and killing grasslands close to the incident site.
‘We have already seen birds and other species suffering, he said, adding that many birds have left their nests. ‘The green has become brown now, he said. One of the villagers who was evacuated, 45-year-old Binita Deka, said that locals were afraid their lives were ‘in danger. ‘The fishes in the water bodies are dying, she said. Officials last week were examining the carcass of a river dolphin found in a lake close to the area. Assam Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya said his state government was committed to protecting the surrounding ecosystems. ‘The forest department has already formed an expert committee to assess the damage it may cause to the environment. One thing I can assure is that no compromise will be made for safeguarding nature and wildlife, he said.
Officials on Monday ordered a probe into the deaths of five people from the areas surrounding the field, although the district administration said a preliminary investigation suggested they died of natural causes.
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