In Kathiramangalam, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district in the Cauvery delta, villagers and activists have been protesting Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC)’s activities. The Company has obtained 700 oil wells in Tamil Nadu and operates 183 of them. The well in Kathiramangalam has been in operation since 2002 and it pumps out 13,000 litres of oil and 38,000 cubic metres of gas each day.
According to the villagers who are mainly farmers, these wells have been contaminating and depleting the groundwater. This comes at a time when Tamil Nadu is facing its worst drought in 140 years.
At the start of 2017, ONGC officials wanted to change the bore-wells, making it further deeper overnight. Villagers protested this act. 1000 police officials were deployed and the pipes were changed. Locals allege the probability of Coal Bed Methane mining occurring.
The protest was intensified by an oil spill that occurred on June 30, 2017. Officials claimed about 2,000 litres of crude oil escaped from a pipe of 4-inch diameter buried six feet under the ground. Examination of soil, groundwater and surface water samples from Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam revealed that hydrocarbon operations by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited are harming the environment, the Coastal Resource Centre said. It added that its studies had confirmed that the ONGC had not employed the best international practices while responding to the oil spill in Kathiramangalam on June 30., 2917 (Scroll.in, 9/8/17).
Villagers refused to allow ONGC officials to fix the leak which led to a fire in the field. The police in return lathi-charged protesters, arrested 10 people and booked them for sedition and under the Goondas act. The state’s chief minister justified this action and threatened protestors. Few went on a hunger strike demanding the release of those arrested. Around 200 residents resorted to a novel protest by setting up a community kitchen in the open yard of a temple in the village and used firewood for the same instead of LPG supplied by ONGC. Over 3,000 shops were closed in Kumbakonam and adjacent towns in support of Kathiramangalam residents.
The land owner of where the spill occurred had been paid a compensation of Rs 59,000 but the site is yet to be cleaned and officials told the owner to clean it himself. The returned land is most likely no longer suitable for cultivation. Last year a resident’s land of one acre was returned. He wrote to ONGC asking for reports on the condition of water and soil but received no response. He later did a soil test through the Tamil Nadu agricultural department and the results showed his land is no longer suitable for paddy, the primary crop in the region.
Villagers claim the contaminated groundwater is affecting their children and cattle causing skin diseases, fever and even cancer. Water pumped out from hand-pumps and bore-pipes are "muddy" and sometimes smell of rotten eggs to indicate presence of hydrogen sulphide, an inference that hydrocarbons from the drilling site could have mixed with groundwater.
The oil spill has reportedly led to spread of contamination to public water courses and the Velloor irrigation canal. Samples were collected from the epicentre of the leak and from 50 feet away from the spill. The soil taken 50 feet away was mixed with rain water and contained 438 mg/kg of TPH and the soil from the epicentre contained 1118 mg/kg. Seven samples were collected from areas where ONGC operations were underway or abandoned. They were tested in CVR laboratories, a private centre approved by the government. All seven samples – including four soil, two surface water and one groundwater – are contaminated by hydrocarbons linked to oil extraction or refining. There is also a risk of produced water leaking out of the pipes. Produced water is highly saline and corrosive. It contains hydrocarbons like the toxic benzene, xylene, toluene and polycyclic aromatics, sulphurous gases such as hydrogen sulphide. To the farmer who tills that land, the soil is dead and will yield nothing
The company has completely denied the contamination happening. According to them extracting oil found below 2,000-2500 m cannot pollute groundwater extracted at 50 m.
Forty five days after this leak, another leak occurred in a nearby pipeline, in Nagapattinam district. According to villagers, this is the fourth time that pipeline, which is below an irrigation canal, has leaked. ONGC officials did not arrive to fix the pipeline for six hours.
Local organisations also fear exploration of Shale gas taking place that is very harmful for the region. While the company denies it, the website of the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons states having identified and initiated exploration in Kathiramangalam.
In response to these protests, a series of videos were made by ONGC to protect their image. The videos are staged such that the company has been helping the village economically and expects residents to be grateful for the oil, petroleum and natural gas that they receive. They have also been dubbing the ongoing protests by people against its oil exploration project as being carried out by 'vested interest groups' and urging people to not be misled by rumours.
While, ONGC has not withdrawn activities in the area and exploration continues, protests are still on.
Further ONGC has filed an application with the union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) for environmental clearance to drill 110 new oil and gas wells across the Cauvery delta and Ramanathapuram. And Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami announced a 23,000 hectares Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region (PCPIR) which is spread over 45 villages in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts.