Authorities in northeastern India on Monday ordered a probe into the deaths of five people following an uncontrollable gas leak from an exploded well almost two weeks ago.
They announced the investigation as experts from Singapore arrived to try and stem the blowout near popular ecotourism spots.
The gas well in an oil field managed by state-owned Oil India Ltd blew out on May 27 in Tinsukia district of Assam state, and was still "flowing gas uncontrollably", the firm said late last week.
Five people from the areas surrounding the oil and gas field have died since then, sparking a magisterial inquiry by the Tinsukia district administration. Locals fear the deaths were caused by the incident.
The district adminstration said a preliminary investigation suggested the villagers died of natural causes.
Authorities have established an exclusion zone of 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles) around the oil and gas field and about 2,500 people have been evacuated from their homes.
There are no official statements on how much gas and condensate has escaped.
But according to Oil India, the well was producing 100,000 standard cubic metres per day (SCMD) of gas from a depth of 3,870 metres (4,234 yards) before the blowout.
Water is also being pumped to the well to prevent the gas catching fire, Oil India said.
Locals and environmentalists are increasingly worried about the impact of the gas leakage.
- 'Fishes... are dying' -
Just one kilometre from the field is Maguri-Motapung wetlands, an ecotourism site. State-owned sanctuary Dibru Saikhowa National Park -- a biodiverse area renowned for migratory birds -- is about 2.5 kilometres away.
The Assam Pollution Control Board chairman, Y. Suryanarayana, told the Indian Express newspaper the gas was spreading to a radius of five kilometres, with the condensate "mostly falling on bamboo, tea gardens, banana trees and betel nut trees".
Local birding guide and wildlife photographer Binanda Hatiboruah told AFP the condensate was covering water bodies and killing grasslands close to the incident site.
"We have already seen birds and other species suffering," he said, adding that many birds have left their nests. "The green has become brown now," he said.
One of the villagers who was evacuated, 45-year-old Binita Deka, told AFP that locals were afraid their lives were "in danger".
"The fishes in the water bodies are dying," she said.
Officials last week were examining the carcass of a river dolphin found in a lake close to the area.
Assam Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya said his state government was committed to protecting the surrounding ecosystems.
"The forest department has already formed an expert committee to assess the damage it may cause to the environment... One thing I can assure is that no compromise will be made for safeguarding nature and wildlife," he told AFP.
Guwahati , India | AFP