Magurchhara Blowout: No compensation even after a decade

The Daily Star, June 14 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Today is the 11th anniversary of Magurchhara gas-well explosion. On the night of this day in 1997, a massive blowout torn apart the Magurchhaqra gas field in Moulvibazar’s Kamalganj upazila while US energy company Occidental was drilling a well there.

The massive blaze that the blowout triggered wiped out property worth crores of taka. The US company was widely blamed for the devastation, but compensation for the damage remains still a far reach.

Different organisations have been observing the ‘Magurchhara Day’ on June 14 every year with various programmes: meetings, rallies, human chains, etc. 

Sayed Abu Zafar Ahmed of the ‘Committee for Oil, Gas and Port Protection in the National Interest’ said their organisation has chalked out programmes to observe the day.

At Magurchhara, the affected people expressed their dissatisfaction to this correspondent over the role of the successive governments in realising the damages. They wanted to know the mystery behind the long government silence when it comes to settling the compensation claims.

The flora and fauna of the Lawachhara Reserve Forest adjoining the exploded well took the brunt of the explosion. The inferno destroyed a teak grove raised between 1944 and 1950, bamboo shacks created between 1993 and 1995, and a strip of plantation established in 1994.

About 96 acres of Lawachhara forest was completely burnt. Fifty percent of the forest resources on 111.15 acres of land and 30 percent resources on 106.21 acres of land were also damaged. 

Experts said the loss is irrecoverable. Since the fire, wild animals stray into households on the outskirts of the forest in search of food.

The then Awami League government formed a committee headed by the then additional secretary to the ministry of energy and mineral resources to assess the loss of the resources. The committee submitted a report to the ministry’s secretary on July 30, 1997. 

The parliamentary standing committee on energy and mineral resources ministry formed another investigation committee comprising three lawmakers. Besides, the forest department had also conducted a survey on June 16 and 17, 1997.

According to the committee reports, the damage to forest resources amounted to Tk 9,858 crore while 29 tea gardens of the area suffered a loss of about Tk 46.07 crore. 

The railway suffered a loss of Tk 21 crore, Jalalabad Gas Company Tk 43 lakh, the electricity department about Tk 4.35 crore. Indigenous Khasia people lost betel leaf plantations worth Tk 18 lakh. 

The reports said the ecology is unlikely to bounce back to normal within the next 50 years. 

Locals are yet to receive compensation while energy company Occidental already made a safe exit from Magurchhara. After the accident, another US company Unocal took over the operations of Magurchhara gas field and later yet another US company, Chevron, bought out Unocal. 

According Chevron, Moulvibazar gas field at Magurchhara has been operating safely since its re-inception in March 2005. The company drilled through sand twice where the accident had taken place in 1997. One well is currently producing natural gas.

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