When water reeks of oil: How a leak in BPCL pipeline affected women in a Chennai neighbourhood

Collecting water is still the women's 'job' in many families, and it often makes them stay put at home, missing important occasions.

ByLaasya Shekhar

Published Dec 01, 2023 | 11:00 AMUpdatedDec 01, 2023 | 1:57 PM

When water reeks of oil: How a leak in BPCL pipeline affected women in a Chennai neighbourhood

R Gajalakshmi still remembers the day 11 years ago when she first noticed oil in the borewell water.

Initially, she shrugged it off, but as days went by, the problem became worse. Soon, the water turned dark and started smelling like sludge. “I thought sewage had contaminated our groundwater source,” the resident of VP Koil Street in Tondiarpet, a northern neighbourhood of Chennai, recalled. 

Gajalakshmi then did not realise that the oil in the water was the beginning of an additional burden on women in the neighbourhood, something that would bog them down at home for years.

Over the past decade, Tondiarpet underwent a tremendous transformation. The neighbourhood now has Metro, “branded” hospitals and high-rise apartments have sprouted on vacant sites.

A few paces from Tondiarpet Metro station, on the Thiruvottiyur High Road, women still have to ensure water for domestic purposes, the long-drawn effect of the oil in water Gajalakshmi noticed 11 years ago.

Also Read: Karnataka PCB flags aquatic life degradation in Bengaluru lakes

Why is it a woman’s problem? 

The issue was not confined to Gajalakshmi, she realised more than a decade ago. More than 100 families in two localities, VP Koil Street and TH Road Junction, in Tondiarpet were left with dark sludge instead of groundwater from their borewells. 

Tondiarpet residents are frustrated that they cannot use their ground water. (Laasya Shekhar/South First)

Tondiarpet residents are frustrated that they cannot use their ground water. (Laasya Shekhar/South First)

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) sprung into action and surveyed 12 borewells. It found four wells highly contaminated and highly inflammable and four others moderately contaminated, according to a petition the residents filed before the Southern bench of the National Green Tribunal in 2013.  

TNPCB also cautioned that the water from the well-posed serious health hazards. 

It was soon found that a crack in a pipeline of the Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), a refinery in North Chennai, led to a massive leakage of crude oil that contaminated the groundwater. Crude oil from Chennai Port is transported to the many refineries in North Chennai, including BPCL, Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited, and Indian Oil Corporation, through pipelines. 

BPCL owned up to the responsibility and started supplying potable water to the affected families every morning from 2013. But it didn’t unburden Gajalakshmi as the supplied water was insufficient for her six-member family. 

“BPCL has been supplying water to us in barrels. But it is not enough. Everyday, I pump an additional 12 pots of metro water to meet the needs of my family,” she said. 

Collecting water is still the women’s “job” in many families, and it often makes them stay put at home, missing important occasions. “My aunt died three years ago. But if I go for two days, who would fill the water at home,” Gajalakshmi asked. 

The affected families — women to be more precise — pump metro water if the BPCL supply falls short. “I have developed severe knee pain as I have been pumping water everyday for the past 10 years,” a 60-year-old woman said, seeking anonymity.

She was worried that the BPCL would discontinue supplying water if she complained. “Water from my borewell was sweet. But now, we have no choice but to depend on BPCL. I cannot afford to lose that as well,” she added.

Also Read: How ‘donations’ to politicians are ruining ecology of Kerala coast

No solution in sight

Families that approached the NGT were paid an interim compensation of ₹1 lakh each for the decade-long burden. However, only a handful of families complained to the NGT. 

Tondiarpet residents are frustrated that they cannot use their ground water. (Laasya Shekhar/South First)

Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited has been supplying water to the affected families. (Laasya Shekhar/South First)

“Our water is polluted. Collecting water is our topmost priority. I don’t remember the last time we went out together as a family. Someone should be home to collect water,” 67-year-old Sundari rued.

Her family did not file a case and so did not receive the compensation. 

But, Sundari was happy with the remediation works that started in 2015, with the BPCL bearing its cost of approximately ₹16 crore. US-based Stratus Environmental Inc, an environmental engineering firm, was assigned the task of removing hydrocarbons from groundwater in 2013. 

Two soil vapour extraction machines were set up at the site to remove hydrocarbons from the groundwater. However, delivering a rude shock to the citizens, the BPCL discontinued the remediation work on 7 June 2023, without intimating the affected families. 

“It was neither the right way nor the right time to discontinue the remediation process,” an official involved with the project said on the condition of anonymity. 

The process bore a positive effect, said experts and citizens. Water here no longer looks like sludge or crude oil, even though the smell persists and is unfit for usage. In a compliance report filed by BPCL to the NGT in 2018, it has mentioned that, “although low concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons are being reported in groundwater samples, not recommend to use of groundwater in private bore wells.”

“By comparing the quality of water and soil from a study in 2014 and later in 2019, we learnt that there has been a 90% reduction of hydrocarbons. While it is a positive outcome, it still means that the contamination persists in water and it is unfit for use,” said the official. Yet, BPCL chose to discontinue the process

A time-consuming process

Examples from oil-spill sites in the United Stated and the Gulf countries reiterate the fact that the remediation procedures often take decades and are expensive. Procedurally, discontinuing the remediation procedure requires consent from the general public, who are victims of oil contamination in Tondiarpet.

“The BPCL did not conduct a public meeting. It stopped the remediation procedure abruptly,” Sasi Kumar, a resident and one of the victims, said. 

The project was stopped when Stratus Environmental Inc was mulling over alternative options such as pump-and-treat method with activated carbon.

“Through this method, we could have removed 5 percent of the remaining 10 percent of the hydrocarbons in the next two years. Stratus Environmental tried the method at Tondiarpet in 2016 and it was impactful,” the official added.  In this procedure, carbon absorbs the petroleum odour in the contaminated water. 

HD Varalakshmi, Regional Director, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Chennai was unwilling to delve into details. “As per the NGT’s direction, we were monitoring the procedure. We provided recommendations to the NGT. I cannot comment on the discontinuation of the remediation procedure,” she told South First.

It was also learnt that BPCL did not complete the payment to Stratus Environmental Inc. Sources from the BPCL said that it had to stop the project, as the project tenure (with Stratus Environmental) of 10 years had been completed.

“As per the norms, we cannot proceed with the same vendor after the project’s tenure. We are not sure if the remediation process will continue,” a BPCL employee said. However, Jayamurugan, District Environmental Engineer, Tondiarpet told South First that the remediation process will resume at the earliest. 

Jayamurugan added that the department would totally clean up the contamination site. However, he did not delve into any information about when the procedure would start.

Meanwhile, the BPCL said it would continue supplying water to the affected families.