At least 21 people were killed and 42 others injured in an explosion at an illegal oil well in Pasir Putih village, Ranto Peureulak subdistrict, East Aceh, in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
The fire spread rapidly and destroyed at least five houses, according to the East Aceh Disaster and Evacuation Agency (BPBD). All of the victims were residents of Ranto Peureulak. A local search and rescue team is continuing to search for other possible victims.
Of the injured 20 were taken to Zubir Mahmud Hospital, 16 to Abdul Azis Hospital, while six others are being treated at Graha Bunda Hospital, all in East Aceh.
“The police are still investigating the cause of the explosion,” Ranto Peureulak subdistrict head Saiful said.
Meanwhile, the government said that it would take legal action against parties responsible for the incident.
“This is an illegal [well]. So, we, along with the local administration, will take legal action,” Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry spokesman, Agung Pribadi, told reporters in Jakarta.
Agung said the illegal oil well was drilled on state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina’s operational territory in East Aceh. He said a joint team involving the ministry’s oil and gas directorate and Pertamina had been sent to Pasir Putih to investigate the incident.
As of Wednesday afternoon, firefighters and the BPBD team were still working to extinguish the blaze that was rooted in the 250-meter well.
While the cause of the blaze remains under investigation, eyewitnesses claim the fire occurred after they saw sparks near the well and the flames instantly spread around the drilling site and oil storage.
National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesperson, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said the victims were extracting crude oil from the well prior to the fire, moving the oil into containers.
“We have reason to believe that the blaze was triggered by welding sparks,” Sutopo said, adding that ownership of the well had yet to be confirmed.
“There are several crude oil wells around the location, but only one caught fire,” East Aceh BPBD head Syahrizal said, adding that the BPBD and Pertamina were still trying to bring the fire under control.
Yuyun Ismawati, cofounder of environmental organization Bali Fokus, warned of the danger from toxic chemicals in the fire, urging the authorities to immediately extinguish it.
“There is a mixture of toxic chemicals being burned and released into the air. It should be controlled and put out immediately,” she said, pointing out that these materials might include oil, heavy metals, arsenic, chromium, mercury and naturally occurring radioactivity.
“The government should impose strict controls to monitor and seal old oil wells. Most of the illegal mining and oil-drilling activities are backed up by corrupt police and military or influential politicians,” she said.
Yuyun further said that although Law no 4/2009 on mineral and coal mining regulated artisanal mining, the law did not provide clear guidance for small-scale oil drilling.
Common problems in small-scale mining include the lack of standard safety procedures. Workers were exposed to various operational risks without protection or safety plans, she said.
“Lastly, the government should prohibit the re-opening of old oil and mining sites especially those that have already been rehabilitated. We still don’t have that in our law,” she said.
The Aceh oil well fire is the second crude oil-related environmental disaster to have occurred this month, after around 40,000 barrels of crude oil crude leaked from an underwater Pertamina pipeline in Balikpapan Bay, East Kalimantan, on March 31. Five fishermen died in that incident. Authorities declared an emergency status following the oil spill. The police investigation into the oil spill is still ongoing.