US oilmen arrive as hundreds battle Indian well blaze

United States experts arrived on Friday to help Indian firefighters battle a major blaze at a burst oil well which was sending smoke and flames shooting into the sky, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.

A spokesperson for Oil India Limited (Oil), the country’s main oil exploration firm, said hundreds of firefighters had worked through the night but failed to put out the blaze near Dikom, 520km east of Assam state’s main city Guwahati.

The two US experts were from Houston, Texas-based Boots and Coots International Well Control, a leading company dealing with oil and gas well blowouts and fires.

“The US experts were accompanied by an eight-member crisis management team” from Oil and Natural Gas Corp,” Oil spokesperson Prasanta Barkakati told Agence France Presse by telephone from the company’s headquarters in Duliajan, Assam.

“Hundreds of firefighters worked throughout the night to bring the blaze under control, using water cannons and foam,” Barkakati added. “The fire is still raging.”

Oil’s group general manager JK Talukdar said the oil well fire was generating temperatures of about 2 000°C, making it impossible “now for our workers to cap the oil spill”.

“We hope the foreign team of experts will be able to do something,” he said.

The cause of the fire had not been determined.

Assam, rich in minerals and timber, has been in the grip of a separatist insurgency that has left more than 10 000 people dead since 1979, and rebels have attacked oil installations in the past.

Witnesses reported lakes of oil in an area dotted with rice fields.

“The oil spill and the fire has started affecting the locals with villagers as far as two to three kilometres from the fire site reporting their rice fields and ponds filled with a greasy layer,” Bhuban Dutta, a community leader in Dikom, said by telephone.

More than 3 000 people were evacuated and lodged at makeshift shelters with civil authorities providing food and medicines.

“We informed Oil authorities Tuesday morning that there was a leakage in the well, but they simply laughed at us,” charged Ranjit Dutta, leader of a local non-governmental organisation called Save Dikom.

Police said local firefighters arrived with 25 trucks on Thursday afternoon, but were unable to move close to the well with the fire raging.

India produces about 30-million tonnes of crude oil annually, with Assam accounting for five million tonnes of the total. - AFP

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