(July 5, 2017)

On June 30, a simmering discontent over ONGC’s operations in Thanjavur’s Kathiramangalam village in the Cauvery delta turned violent after police baton-charged villagers protesting a leak from an ONGC pipeline said to be carrying “crude oil and natural gas” from its well in the village to the refinery in Kuthalam, Nagapattinam. DMK leader M.K. Stalin condemned the police violence in a statement to the Chief Minister, even as several prominent leaders of opposition parties did the same at a press conference organised by Poovulagin Nanbargal yesterday. With all eyes on the police violence, a far more insidious fall out of the “oil” spill has been brushed under the carpet.

The anger of local residents had been building up over the years. In early June, the dispersed anger took a defined shape when ONGC brought in rigs and other heavy machinery to the site of a well that it had been operating since 2001. Plagued by groundwater contamination due to the existing well, villagers feared that the rigs were meant for exploring coal-bed methane that would make the already bad situation worse. ONGC denies that the rigs are meant for CBM exploration, but given ONGC’s opaque functioning, no-one can blame villagers for not believing the company.

But let us not let the CBM controversy take centre-stage. Let us focus on the pipeline leak and what is not being said about it. Let us focus on what the “oil” that leaked is and can do, and what ONGC should do but is not doing. The properties of the “oil” and ONGC’s silence and inaction are far more dangerous than the police batons.

In an interview to Times of India, ONGC Cauvery Basin Manager T. Rajendran is quoted as saying “15 cents of agricultural land had absorbed oil that leaked out of the pipeline. We will adequately compensate the affected land owners.”

If 15 cents is the surface area over which the “oil” has visibly spread, the sub-surface area (underground) impacted by the “oil” and the volume of soil impacted would be far greater. Note how ONGC makes no mention of restoration of the impacted environment. The same article quotes ONGC’s Karaikal Asset Manager Kulbir Singh on the cause of the leak: “A small hole was discovered on the underside of the pipe. A report will be ready in two months’ time,” Singh said.

By the time the report is readied, the damage done by the spill to the environment, human and livestock health and the groundwater would be undoable. Fact aside that the report will never be made public given ONGC’s penchant for secrecy.


Niyas Ahmed, a bright young journalist with the Tamil weekly Vikatan, had posted a youtube video of an interview with three women from Kathiramangalam. The frame had the three women seated on a platform with a plastic bottle filled with muddy-brown water. The water, Niyas told me over phone, was from a handpump in a dalit residential area. The women spoke about the spill and how a nauseatingly noxious smell spread through the air, prompting people to throw up.

I later called a college-going youngster whose number was given to me by Niyas to find out more about what the spilled “oil” looked like and more about the odour. He said “What spilled that day was not just oil. It was water mixed with oil. The water was the colour of sandalwood. The smell was unbearable, nauseating, suffocating. There was a strong smell of oil, kerosene and cooking gas.”

Going by the young man’s description, it appears that what spilled from the leaky pipeline was not just crude oil, but crude mixed with one of the most intractable and dangerous waste streams associated with petroleum production — “Produced Water.”

If the smell was as intense as described by the young man, that means that the baton-wielding police, the ONGC officials and the villagers were unknowingly partaking of a deadly cocktail of poisons. Let me explain.

Petroleum is always found in association with natural water either in the rock zone beneath the reservoir or in the pores of the same rock zone that holds the petroleum. When oil/gas is extracted, the pressure in the reservoir drops sucking the water into the well. This water is known variously as produced water, oilfield water, oilfield brine. As the oil/gas well ages, the quantity of produced water per unit of petroleum extracted increases. Depending on the age of the well and the nature of production, between two and nine barrels of produced water can be generated for every barrel of oil extracted.
Produced water is highly saline and corrosive. It will contain hydrocarbons like the toxic benzene, xylene, toluene and polycyclic aromatics, sulphurous gases such as hydrogen sulphide, heavy metals like lead, chromium, nickel, selenium, barium, strontium, arsenic, mercury and antimony, and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) like dissolved uranium, radon and radium.

Pipelines or vessel interiors used to store or transport these effluents are prone to corroding and developing scales and salt deposits. The scales themselves tend to concentrate the toxins within the effluent, and ought to be handled as hazardous wastes.

The lighter aromatics like benzene, xylene, toluene, and the nerve-numbing Hydrogen Sulphide is likely to get airborne and spread wide. Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical that can cause childhood leukemia or blood cancer in children.

The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has this to day about hydrogen sulphide:
“Hydrogen sulfide is a mucous membrane and respiratory tract irritant; pulmonary edema, which may be immediate or delayed, can occur after exposure to high concentrations. Symptoms of acute exposure include nausea, headaches, delirium, disturbed equilibrium, tremors, convulsions, and skin and eye irritation.” This is what the villagers, the Superintendent of Police and the ONGC officials were breathing that day in Kathiramangalam.

While the lighter gases may have volatilised to low levels in air, the heavier aromatics, the salts, the heavy metals are still in the soil and migrating down to the groundwater. The spectrum of metals contain toxins that affect virtually every system in the body. Mercury affects the brain and kidneys. Selenium affects the bones — causing brittle bones and nails — and is also linked to depression. Antimony affects the musculoskeletal system leading to joint pains and bone disorders.
The radioactive radon is also cancer causing and when airborne can be breathed in resulting in lung cancer.
To the farmer who tills that land, the soil is dead and will yield nothing. It is a liability that no-one will or should buy. Worse, it is a contact hazard and he must fence off that land to prevent animals from grazing there or children from wandering into it at least until it is cleaned up or rendered safe with the passage of time.

A little while ago, my friend Piyush Manush called me from Kathiramangalam. He said that many people complained that groundwater is contaminated. As proof, he said they showed him water that was clear when pumped out, but gradually turned sandy-brown in colour. “It did not have a very perceptible odour; just a hint of a smell. But after a short while, an oil film was clearly visible,” he said. He also said that there are a number of abandoned wells that have not yielded a drop of oil. Such wells ought to have been sealed. The ones that Piyush didn’t seem to have been.

If this is true, then the problem is far graver. Oil wells are deep bores whose sidewalls are encased with impermeable material to ensure that the production water and oil does not escape out of the bore into the surrounding aquifers. International best practice requires that rigorous monitoring is done to be able to detect any breaches in the encasement early on so that they can be repaired before too much damage is done. If it turns out that the groundwater contamination is as widespread as is being suggested by the people who spoke to Piyush, then the problem may well be irreparable. Groundwater remediation is an expensive and time-consuming exercise. In any case, people should first ascertain whether and to what extent the water is contaminated, and ideally switch to alternative sources until they know the quality of water.

There are criminal lapses on many counts here. ONGC has failed to:
a) inform and educate people about the nature of the activity (of petroleum extraction and transportation);
b) educate people about the kinds of chemicals present in the crude + produced water that is extracted, and how they should protect themselves from its toxic effects;
c) set up monitoring wells in the vicinity to monitor changes in groundwater quality and quantity, and verify whether or not contaminants from the oil well are migrating into groundwater;
d) develop and implement a spill management plan;
e) inform the district management, police personnel and ONGC personnel on the appropriate practices and protective equipment that ought to be used when in the vicinity of a toxic spill such as this.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, you may notice, was not even called to handle this incident of toxic spill. The police and revenue officials were there. But the TNPCB was not. That is how irrelevant that agency is, and that is why I am not listing out what the TNPCB ought to have done but did not do.

If the Government wishes to at least partially repair the damage already done, it should:
a) Fence off the spill site;
b) Implement the Central Pollution Control Board’s Guidelines on Implementing Liabilities for Environmental Damages due to Handling and Disposal of Hazardous Waste and Penalty.
c) Do a full and thorough clean-up of the site;
d) Monitoring ground water quality in the area; and seal off wells that are contaminated
e) Aquifers that are found to be contaminated should be cleaned up by ONGC
f) Compensate the farmers and well-users affected by the spill and routine contamination.
g) Conduct a detailed health study to assess the baseline health of villagers in the vicinity, and monitor them in the long-term.
h) Identify other places where similar spills have happened and take above-mentioned actions.

For the Tamil version of this article, click here


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