A yellowish brown liquid swirls thickly in a steel container held by the villagers of Kathiramangalam. If its colour makes you curious, the revelation that it is water, will leave you shocked. This coloured liquid, is what the residents of this village, which has shot into the media limelight over the last four days, uses as drinking water and for domestic purposes.
And why it is this colour you ask? Experts suspect it could be due to the contamination of oil in it.
The villagers of Kathiramangalam had sat in protest on Saturday, following the leak in an ONGC pipeline. They refused to let police or ONGC officials fix the leak till their questions were answered by the Thanjavur collector himself. What followed next was police action against the protesters and the arrest of 10 people present there. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palanisamy justified the lathi charge on the floor of the assembly and said that the protesters mistook an attempt to fix the leak as an effort to do preliminary work to extract methane gas.
The state government argued that, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) had been extracting crude oil from land given by villagers since 2001.
But Piyush Manush, an environmental activist who visited Kathiramangalam on Tuesday, says the villagers had every right to demand answers.
"ONGC has completely messed this place up," he begins exasperated. "There are 7 wells around Kathiramangalam and several of them must be unused. Ideally there should use high grade material to encase the oil and gas so that it doesn't leak, but clearly it seems to have already entered the water table," he alleged.
Piyush claims to have witnessed that the water that villagers were pumping out turned brown within an hour. "You can't leave a 3000 feet oil well discarded for over a decade. It will have its repercussions. The contamination is evident to the eye. This water has to be tested," he explains.
ONGC has denied allegations of water pollution due to its wells. But they did admit that 15 cents of agricultural land had absorbed oil that leaked out of the pipeline on Saturday. They further claimed that a report on the leak will be readied in two months. "We will adequately compensate the affected land owners," said ONGC Cauvery basin manager T Rajendran to TOI.
But according to an article written by environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, this damage cannot be dismissed so easily.
"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. 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," says his report.
If this does not sound grave enough, the report also says that the oil that has leaked could also have carried along with it, produced water.
"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," writes Nityanand. "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," he adds.
Piyush too agrees that the situation could already be irreversible. "We need to conduct health tests to assess how badly affected Kathiramangalam is," he says anxiously.