In the wake of the fire and resulting ecological catastrophe at the Baghjan oilfield in Assam, the Wildlife Institute of India called for a reassessment of the environmental clearance granted to Oil India Limited in April for drilling 18 wells and laying gas pipelines in this area, a report obtained under a Right to Information request shows.

Wildlife Institute of India is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The report, finalised in mid-July, is part of an assessment mandated by the National Green Tribunal following the blowout of one of Oil India Limited’s wells in Baghjan, in Assam’s Tinsukia district, on May 27, which went on to catch fire on June 9. The fire was doused on September 13. A “blowout” is an uncontrolled release of oil and/or gas caused by failures in pressure control systems.

The report highlights two major shortcomings of companies operating oil and gas wells in Assam: poor management of oil spills from wells, and poor emergency response readiness and effectiveness with respect to major accidents. It also criticises Oil India Limited for having no restorative process in place for remediation of the impacts of oil spills into terrestrial and aquatic systems, thereby leaving “nature to heal herself”.

Satellite imagery of oil well before and after the blow out. The impact area is in red square. Source: Wildlife Institute of India

“Oil India Limited is a public sector company so the government itself is a violator here,” said MD Madhusudan, an independent researcher and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, reacting to the report.

The report, which says 65 to 70 hectares of land including crop fields, grasslands and swamps, have been destroyed by the Baghjan disaster, calls for an evaluation of the cumulative impact of around 50 oil wells, including those in the planning stage, on local biodiversity in Assam. The areas earmarked for oil extraction border protected areas, rivers, wetlands and important bird areas harbouring critically endangered species of flora and fauna.

Cumulative assessments critical

“Cumulative impact assessments are important because we do not really have the larger picture of how we would like to proceed [with developmental projects in eco-sensitive areas],” said Madhusudan. “You cannot keep adding one oil well at a time in a landscape and assume that they will not add up to something more damaging.”

Apart from the 50 wells, existing and planned, as of September 5, three proposals by Oil India Limited, two by Vedanta Limited and one by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation were pending clearance for further oil and gas exploration in Assam.

The Wildlife Institute of India’s recommendations are especially significant since all on- and off-shore oil and gas exploration projects are – as of January 16 – considered “B2”, a category that requires no public hearing. This means members of the local community, including those impacted by the Baghjan blowout, have no formal say in the clearance process for pending Oil India Limited, Vedanta Limited and ONGC proposals.

The landscape of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts. Protected areas in the vicinity are highlighted. Source: Wildlife Institute of India

NGT’s response

On June 24, the NGT constituted an eight-member expert committee to look into the impact of the Baghjan oil spill and fire, allowing it to induct other experts and institutions. Accordingly, the committee inducted the Wildlife Institute of India.

In July, this expert committee submitted a preliminary report documenting severe ecological damage near the site of the oil spill and fire, as well as the impact on the livelihood of people in the area due to the contamination of groundwater and water bodies like the Maguri-Motapung wetland.

In its final report to the NGT in November, the committee will take into consideration “all relevant materials placed before us including that of Wildlife Institute of India”, Justice BP Katakey, chairperson of the expert committee and former judge of the Gauhati High Court, told IndiaSpend.

The Wildlife Institute of India’s report, obtained by this reporter through an RTI application filed with Wildlife Institute of India on July 23, is yet to be made available online, either on the environment ministry’s website or that of the Wildlife Institute of India. The reply to the RTI application, received on August 20, confirmed that the report had been submitted to the ministry and it had so far not responded.

IndiaSpend has asked Manmohan Singh Negi, Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife), environment ministry, to respond to Wildlife Institute of India’s recommendation of cumulative impact assessment of existing and future oil wells in Assam, and Oil India Limited officials for their reaction to its call for reassessment of the environmental clearance granted to the company’s projects in April. This story will be updated when they reply.

Environmental impact assessments are studies conducted as part of clearances given to individual projects whereas cumulative impact assessments examine the entire range of projects – existing, planned and proposed – in an area.

Ecologically sensitive neighbourhood

The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, the Maguri-Motapung wetlands and surrounding areas in Assam, where oil wells exist and more are planned, harbour around 40 species of mammals, 450 bird species, 104 fish species, 11 chelonian species, 18 lizard species, 23 snake species, 165 butterfly species and 680 plant species, according to the Wildlife Institute of India report.

The list includes species like the Gangetic river dolphin, Bengal florican, great pied hornbill, black soft-shelled turtle, capped langur, hoolock gibbon and slender-billed vulture, as well as elephants, tigers and leopards.

“The potential of oil well blowout and oil spill like disaster like this is a reality,” states the Wildlife Institute of India report, referring to the Baghjan oil spill and fire. Therefore, it emphasises, oil wells in the vicinity of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and important bird areas like Maguri and Motapung wetland, Poba Reserve Forest, Kobo Chapori Proposed Reserve Forest and Amarpur Chapori “will be detrimental to the conservation value of this unique ecosystem”.

In clearance processes, disaster risks are routinely under-estimated “by both the regulatory authority and the companies [project proponents]”, commented Krithika A Dinesh, a lawyer and researcher in environmental policy. She added that this is evident in the manner in which environmental impact assessments reports are prepared and the lack of weightage given to concerns raised by the public and the scientific community.

Qamar Qureshi, one of three scientists who prepared the Wildlife Institute of India report on the Baghjan disaster, pointed out that in addition to regulatory authorities and project proponents, authorities that grant environmental clearances should also be held responsible for underestimating disaster risk. “Laws are good,” Qureshi said, “but the spirit and will of implementation is missing.”

India has approved over 270 projects in and around its most protected environments, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks, since July 2014, according to an IndiaSpend analysis. The documents are often riddled with errors as consultants hired to draw up the assessments “copy and paste from other reports”, Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer and managing trustee of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, had told IndiaSpend. An IndiaSpend story in July highlighted the “problematic” environment clearance given to the Ken-Betwa project in Bundelkhand, with a critic of the project calling the environmental impact assessments a “dishonest document” riddled with errors and manipulations.

Dolphins and fish carcasses

The Wildlife Institute of India report estimates that 65-70 hectares of area around the oil well in Baghjan were destroyed in the recent disaster, including crop fields, grasslands and swamps.

During its impact study, the Wildlife Institute of India’s team encountered a dolphin that had died of oil poisoning, and several carcasses of dead fish, herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) and many species of insects. The surveyors did not encounter tadpoles in many water pools even though it was breeding season and cited this as “a great concern”.

Dead Ganges river dolphin found in Maguri-Motapung wetland of Tinsukia. Source: Wildlife Institute of India

The report further said the oil spill had caused the death and wilting of many plant species, and had “severely affected” the health of forests and grasslands. It said there was a coating of oil on the vegetation, water bodies, as well as many species of river fauna, birds and mammals.

It noted that the richness of bird species in the area, which is famous for a large number of critically endangered bird species and a habitat for migratory birds, increased as you went further away from the site of the oil spill, showing its impact on bird-life.

Impact on local communities

The report, as well as independent experts, have emphasised the impact on local communities, for whom the wetlands and rivers are a critical lifeline.

“About 200-300 people are directly dependent on the beel [wetland] system for [personal] consumption and livelihood,” Narayan Sharma, assistant professor at Cotton University, Gauhati told IndiaSpend. Sharma is part of an expert committee set up by the Assam state government to assess the disaster.

“The oil well spilt [natural gas] condensate from May 27 to June 9, and this was deposited all over the area, including in rivers,” Sharma explained, “The fire spread rapidly [because of the preexisting condensate] and severely burnt some grasslands and wetlands in the area.” As of now, three Oil India Limited employees have died in the disaster, in which many houses also caught fire.

Petrochemicals like oil are toxic to flora and fauna. Additionally, toxic fumes from the blowout and the oil coating will have long-term impacts, the report warned.

In satellite images of the Maguri-Motapung wetlands, no oil pollution is visible on May 23, while oil contamination on vegetation and water is seen after the blow out on June 9. Source: Wildlife Institute of India

Alongside oil, the well-spewed pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde into the environment.

“People in the area have reported severe breathing difficulty, headaches and nausea… even our survey team has suffered from the same symptoms and experienced heavy presence of oil and chemicals in the environment,” said the report.

Air, water poisoned by pollutants

According to the Wildlife Institute of India report, a 16% increase in nitrogen dioxide was recorded on May 27, the day of the oil spill. Spikes in sulphur dioxide were recorded on May 28, the day after, and the highest amount of sulphur dioxide was recorded on June 9, the day of the fire. Formaldehyde spiked on May 28, June 9 and June 21.

Usually, the dissolved oxygen levels in the Brahmaputra river, which flows in the area, are between 7.23 mg/l and 10.92 mg/l, but the Wildlife Institute of India survey recorded DO levels between 0.94 mg/l and 7.35 mg/l. Motapung beel, a wetland, was the worst affected and aquatic fauna died in large numbers, the report said.

The species diversity and abundance of fish also decreased with a decrease in dissolved oxygen levels.

High concentrations of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were also detected in Maguri-Motapung and the Lohit and Dibru rivers, including in fish populations. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are generated during the combustion of fossil fuels. They have long-term effects, given their ability to seep into the groundwater.

Should some wells be shut down?

“Some trees and grasslands might look okay today and they might have withstood the initial shock but we do not know what kind of physiological impacts have occurred,” Sharma said, emphasising the potential long-term impact of the catastrophe.

“For short-term energy needs, we are compromising our future,” Qureshi said, pointing out that there are only a handful of Indian examples of a system of riverine forests, savanna and swampy grasslands, among them in Assam and the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh.

While pointing out that the logical conclusion to the Wildlife Institute of India recommendation calling for a cumulative impact assessment would be the shutting down of some existing wells and/ or the scrapping of some planned wells, Madhusudan asked: “Which project are you going to scrap?” It is not clear, he said, on what basis a decision to shut down some projects and not others would be taken, if some projects are to be allowed to continue.

The Wildlife Institute of India report calls for an annual payment by Oil India Limited to the Assam Forest Department for the restoration of the area affected by the Baghjan disaster. “But the payment of monetary compensation can simply be absorbed as a cost of business, and serves neither as an incentive to function in an environmentally responsible manner nor as a deterrent against future violations,” Madhusudan said. Shutting down the well would be a “proportionate penalty”, he added.

Oil India Limited applied for environmental clearance for two of its three proposals for oil and gas exploration in Assam after the Baghjan blowout.

The oil well was still burning on September 9 when Sharma spoke to IndiaSpend. “How did Oil India Limited apply for more clearances when they have still not been able to contain the fire?”

Oil India Limited officials managed to douse the fire in the oil well, as we said, on September 13, after 110 days of burning.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.