TN oil spill: ONGC reassures locals, but fails to convince

Seeking to clear itself about its hydrocarbon extraction projects in Tamil Nadu following protests in Kadiramangalam and Neduvasal, ONGC held a meeting in Chennai on Wednesday where it claimed that local people had been misled about the company's activities.

Deputy general manager C N S Kumar said there were no coal bed methane or shale gas extraction projects planned as was being speculated. He also denied any contamination of groundwater or changes in groundwater levels due to oil well drilling activities in Tamil Nadu.

''ONGC has been working in Kadiramangalam for the past eight years and we have taken all necessary safety measures here,'' Kumar said, adding that of a total of 36 lakh acres of cultivable land in the Cauvery basin, only 1,600 acres had been acquired by ONGC to carry out exploratory activities, and hence there was no threat to agricultural activities due to oil and natural gas extraction.

However, the company failed to come up with convincing answers with regard to the safety and response mechanism in the event of an oil spill. On 30 June, due to an oil leak, fertile agricultural lands were contaminated in Kadiramangalam.

The twelve-hour leakage in the ONGC well in Kathiramangalam spewed 2,000 litres of crude oil and 18,000 cubic metres of gas, senior officials of the state-run company said on Wednesday.

 At a press briefing, ONGC's director (onshore) V P Mahawar, said "2,000 litres of crude oil and 18,000 cubic metres of gas leaked out of the well", adding that they had launched an investigation to ascertain the causes. He said the land owner had been paid compensation of Rs59,000 and that ONGC is taking steps to restore the land.

Senior officials of the PSU, which is in the eye of a storm after the Kathiramangalam leak sparked protests, clashes between villagers and police and the subsequent arrest of activists, said they will make available information regarding their project sites in TN, and will release a white paper.

Locals have complained that water used for drinking and domestic purposes is now a muddy brown colour. ONGC officials said the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board tested samples and found that water in nine bore wells in the village was potable, while in three, "only iron content has increased".

The ongoing protests at Kathiramangalam began after the villagers noticed the leak on 30 June. An ONGC statement on Wednesday said they observed a leakage from the pipeline at the Kuthalam-35 well in Kathiramangalam, at 8.30 a m on 30 June. Their crew was unable to close it till 6.30 p m as "local public gathered at the leakage site and obstructed ONGC crew from entering the well site", it said.

Environment activist G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal said locals are concerned about depletion of ground water levels, and contamination of water. "There are carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive materials in the water that comes out during drilling. They are not addressing the issue of seepage," he said.

ONGC officials said drilling requires 25,000 litres of water a day or "or the daily water consumed by 250 people". Steel casings prevent contact between well fluids and ground water, and the water-based mud used for drilling operations "consists of harmless chemicals", they said.

They denied there were any coal bed methane and shale gas operations in TN, depletion or pollution of ground water, and any adverse impact on agriculture.

However, the company failed to come up with convincing answers with regard to the safety and response mechanism in the event of an oil spill.

Sriram Ramamoorthy, 42, an organic farmer, told The Hindu that ONGC had acquired a portion of his land on lease way back in 2002, but had not informed him as to what extraction activities would be undertaken there. When the pipeline leak happened last month, a portion of his land and the nearby fields got contaminated.

''The day the oil pipeline leaked onto the fields, people started gathering at the site and both government and ONGC officials arrived. But the clean-up got delayed,'' he said.