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First the blowout, then the stake-out

ONGC officials getting ready to cap the flame at Pasralapudi-19 oil well’s blowout site in Amalapuram, Andhra Pradesh in 1995. Photo: The Hindu Archives

ONGC officials getting ready to cap the flame at Pasralapudi-19 oil well’s blowout site in Amalapuram, Andhra Pradesh in 1995. Photo: The Hindu Archives  

Memories of covering an oil rig accident in Andhra Pradesh, 25 years ago

As I read reports about the blowout at an Oil India natural gas well at Baghjan in Tinsukia district of Assam, I am beginning to wonder: How are reporters covering a blowout these days? From May 27, a massive fire is spewing out of the well mouth, and may take weeks to be capped. Are reporters waiting at the spot, as I did 25 years ago? It’s not exactly a picnic and may turn out to be a frustrating and seemingly endless assignment. Over three spells in January-March 1995, reporting the blowout became a lengthy stake-out with slow progress and no more than a trickle of information.

Three stints

The unlikely assignment had come my way one evening as I was typing my reports after another humdrum day in court. I was asked to head to a village in Andhra Pradesh I had never heard of until then. A day or two earlier, there had been a blowout at an ONGC drilling site in the Krishna-Godavari Basin. The next morning, I was on a train headed towards Rajahmundry, en route to Amalapuram. Pasarlapudi-19, as the well was called, would be an assignment that I thought would last a few days. But I had to stay in Amalapuram for 10 days; and return to the blowout scene for a 21-day stint. And then a third visit whose duration I can’t recall. By the time the blowout was capped, over 60 days had elapsed, and I had wriggled out of the assignment and passed the baton to a colleague.

Initially, it was a learning experience on what exactly a blowout is and how it is capped. The painstaking process involves creating a shield of water from jet pumps to cool down the area and protect workers going towards the mouth. A relief well had to be dug and efforts made to pump in huge quantities of slurry. If the spew of hydrocarbons was contained to some extent, the well would have to be capped with a metal head flange. If it was not possible, one would have to blow up the well-mouth so that the explosion would suck out all available oxygen and end the blaze.

Not much insight

As now, then too, foreign experts were called to contain the blaze that was burning gas worth lakhs of rupees a day. Crops for a radius of several kilometres were damaged. Renowned expert Neal Adams arrived amidst great hope of capping the inferno.

For the small band of reporters gathered there, working out of nearby lodges and using the local P&T office to send their despatches, there was some expectation that the visiting experts would give us a better insight than the tight-lipped officials. But Mr. Adams and his colleagues were at their taciturn best. Much of the reportage was on local politicians questioning ONGC’s capabilities and farmers lamenting their losses. Neal Adams quit, but we could not confirm the reason why. Ultimately, International Well Control, Houston, succeeded in capping the well. More than the reportage, my memories of Pasarlapudi-19 are the trips to the site on a borrowed bicycle, the upgrade from a lodge that cost ₹40 a day to one that charged ₹110; and the daily trip with my portable typewriter to the telegraph office.

And, yes, it did seem like a picnic sometimes, when we sat at night on the banks of the Gautami, shimmering with the reflection of the towering blaze, well away from its ear-shattering hum.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 8:40:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/first-the-blowout-then-the-stake-out/article31863490.ece

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