The Maguri-Motapung Beel (wetlands, in Assamese) is 500m away from the oil well that exploded on Tuesday; the 340 sq km protected area of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park 800m.
The oil spill and fire have had a catastrophic effect on biodiversity zones around the site, experts TOI spoke with on Wednesday said. And restoration could take years. “The Dibru river is full of dead fish. Two days ago, Gangetic river dolphins floated up. A thin film of oil has covered the river,” said Nirantar Gohain, an environmentalist from Natun-Rangagora, a village on the periphery of the Dibru Saikhowa park.
The Dibru river cuts through the Maguri wetlands and runs along the national park. On May 27, an oil well blowout led to a gas leak. After two weeks of hurried relocation plans and efforts to plug the leak, the well caught fire. On Tuesday, the fire broke out around 1.14pm, a statement by OIL India said.
By Wednesday, the oil condensate had spread across a 5-km radius, the state pollution department announced. “Birds have started dying, grasslands are burning,” Gohain, back from a visit to the affected areas, said. “Maguri Beel is destroyed,” said Rupa Gandhi Chaudhary, chief of communications at the Wildlife Trust of India.
The wetland hosts 80 fish species, and 300 bird species every year. Of those, six are vulnerable species (like the Swamp Francolin and the Marsh Babbler), two endangered (Greater Adjutant and Pallas’s Fish-eagle) and six critically endangered (like Baer’s Pochard, Red-headed Vulture and White-bellied Heron). BirdLife International had recognised it as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area in 1996 — it is one of 12,000 in the world.
“The irony is that because of the wetlands, villages on the other side did not get affected by the fire. The wetlands bore the brunt. But restoration will take years,” said Bibhab Talukdar, CEO of Assambased NGO Aaranyak. For the national park, the concern is about oil condensate.
“The location is very close to Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the condensate that is falling on the park poses great threat to the biodiversity there. It may take up to four weeks for the fire to be put out because oil wells keep burning as long as there is a huge supply of fuel and oxygen. The outlook is catastrophic,” said Chaudhary.
OIL India, too, said its clear-up operations would take at least four weeks. In October last year, environmentalists had protested against the construction of a second gas pipeline beneath the wetland (there already is one over it). That, and an announcement that seven more locations under the Dibru Saikhowa National Park would be drilled for hydrocarbon have come up now.
“There needs to be a probe into whether precautionary guidelines were there or not,” said Talukdar. “There are violent protests around the well site,” an OIL India statement said on Tuesday. “The environmental impact assessment is in progress.”