Twenty days after the village of Kathiramangalam in Thanjavur district erupted in protests, ONGC finally addressed the media to battle 'misinformation'. But in the press briefing that lasted over two hours in Chennai on Wednesday, the public sector unit found itself facing questions for which it had either multiple or no answers at all.
The news conference was chaired by VP Mahawar, the Onshore Director of the PSU. Communication heads of both Cauvery Delta region and national operations were present at the venue as well. The very first question aimed at the panel was the magnitude of the leak in Kathiramangalam.
"Two thousand litres of crude oil and 18,000 cubic metres of gas leaked out of the well," said VP Mahawar. "The total area affected is close to one acre," he added.
But minutes after the press conference ended, Rajasekharan, the Communications chief for the Cauvery Delta region told TNM that area affected is only close to 20 cents. This comes up to only 0.2 acres.
The public relations exercise saw a large amount of time devoted to explaining how the oil major is working for the good of the state despite multiple hurdles. According to ONGC, the Kuthalam-7 is an oil and gas well drilled by ONGC in the year 2000. The well is connected to the nearby Kuthalam-GCS installation. It pumps out 13,000 litres of oil and 38,000 cubic metres of gas from the Kathiramangalam each day. The well in the village has been in operation for the last eight years.
A plan was reportedly made to replace the old production tubing in the another well nearby, according to a press release. However, certain 'vested interest groups' allegedly carried out baseless propaganda that ONGC was carrying out Methane and Shale gas operations at this site and incited the residents.
ONGC has claimed that protests began on on May 19 and operations at the site only ended on June 6. Days after this, the village saw leakage from the Kuthalam-7 .
When asked about this, the oil major says, "The damaged part has been sent to Mumbai for testing. The cause of the leak will be investigated."
ONGC did not have the Environmental Impact Assessment ready to offer to the public, even 20 days after the leak. It further rubbished claims of its wells affecting the groundwater in the region. â€śWhile drilling a well, ONGC follows standard international practice of lowering steel casings and cementing them with oil well cement at every stage. This prevents any kind of contact between well fluids and groundwater,â€ť its press release reads.
If their systems are so intact, why was there a leak in the first place, and how would they explain the oil film that multiple reports have shown in the water pumped out in Kathiramangalam? The officials had no data to rebut charges of groundwater contamination.
But the question that perhaps left the oil major most embarrassed was perhaps on the awareness programmes they were conducting for residents of villages where they were drilling wells. In Kathiramangalam for instance, reports suggest that residents ran towards the leak and were protesting in close range despite the danger of the fuel catching fire.
"Yes, awareness programmes are conducted regularly," said the Onshore Director, summoning the Surface manager to give more details. What followed next, was at least five minutes of embarrassment as the local official struggled to find a way out of this question. He was hurriedly removed and a promise was made to provide more details.
That is not all, the Director further compared the oil that leaked from the well to what â€śour mothers and sisters use to cook at home.â€ť
Environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, who is closely following the happenings at Kathiramangalam, termed the statement made by the Director as irresponsible.
"ONGC is well aware of how hazardous their industry is. Along with such a leak comes produced water which is highly toxic," he explains. "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," he adds.
But the final nail on the coffin, was the inability of an oil major that handles 700 exploratory wells in Tamil Nadu to explain the status of abandoned explorations. Only 183 wells are currently operational in the state. When a well is abandoned, the casing pipes are retrieved and cement plugging is done to cut it off from the surface. By their own admission, when well turns out to be dry, the land is restored to its original condition and handed back to its owner. The officials who addressed the media however, could not supply any data on how many of these abandoned wells were restored and made cultivable again.
In Kathiramangalam meanwhile, protests are still underway as residents demand that agitators who have been booked under the Goondas act, be released immediately.