Playing with fireOn December 20, a massive fire engulfed Super Gas Udyog, a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) bottling plant in Sukhasaina, Birgunj. It took almost nine hours to quell the inferno which claimed the lives of three firefighters, severely injured one more, destroyed a fire engine and posed a severe threat to people living in the vicinity of the bottling plant.
On December 20, a massive fire engulfed Super Gas Udyog, a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) bottling plant in Sukhasaina, Birgunj. It took almost nine hours to quell the inferno which claimed the lives of three firefighters, severely injured one more, destroyed a fire engine and posed a severe threat to people living in the vicinity of the bottling plant.
In the aftermath, amid a public outcry, the government swiftly responded by forming a probe committee led by Kumar Prasad Dahal, the director of Department of Supplies Management (DoSM), to investigate the accident. Almost a month later, the committee released its report citing human negligence and operational errors, and not a technical error, as the main cause for the accident. It also brought forth a list of recommendations to prevent future accidents, including requiring all of the 55 gas bottling plants in the country to obtain the Nepal Standards (NS) certification.
This, however, was not the first time that an accident has occurred at a gas bottling plant in the country, or the first government-formed probe committee. Two years ago, on January 17, 2016, a fire broke out because of an LP gas leakage in Madhyapur Thimi Municipality-1, which killed two people. Similarly, a gas cylinder explosion on May 20, 2016 in Haugaal, Lalitpur killed two and seriously injured five others. In total, LPG accidents have claimed more than 20 lives over the last three years.
The reports published following these accidents repeat their recommendations, almost verbatim: Enforce NS certification to maintain the safety of human lives in and around the bottling plants. These reports, along with several governmental officials, claim that NS certification can solve the ongoing crises. However, out of the 55 bottling plants under operation, only four companies, or 10 percent, maintained the safety features as stipulated by the NS certification at the time of the Birgunj incident.
Three governmental bodies—Department of Supplies Management (DoSM), Nepal Bureau of Standards and Metrology (NBSM) and Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC)—have been delegated the authority to monitor and implement the safety measures.
Alongside these government entities, a number of associations claim to work towards the interest of entrepreneurs and consumers. But every time the news of accident at a bottling plant surfaces, the agencies are quick to shift the blame away.
“It really starts with the initiative of the gas bottling plants operators. If they had abided by the law, it could have ensured at least some level of safety,” said the director General of NBSM, Bhiswo Babu Pudasaini, following the Birgunj accident. In November of 2016, NBSM had enforced the LPG Bottling Plant Operation Standards and directed plants to obtain NS certification within three months.
According to Pudasaini, to receive the standard certification, gas bottling plants are required to hire the necessary technical manpower and observe safety measures, besides being prepared for any kind of emergency on their premises. They also need to maintain adequate space to refill and store gas cylinders. In order to obtain the NS certifications, bottlers are also required to examine their LPG cylinders on a regular basis and check the thickness of the cylinder wall, sludge deposit, valve safety and safety caps. They are also mandated to conduct hydraulic and leakage tests of the cylinders. These procedures would help ensure the safety throughout the supply chain, says Pudasaini, but the bottling plants have not shown any initiatives to ensure the safety of their factory workers or customers.
Furthermore, the LP Gas By-law promulgated by NOC in 2009, requires LPG bottling plants to be set up at least five kilometres away from human settlements. Nonetheless, Super Gas Udyog was located 700 metres from Maniyari, a village of 6,627 people living in 934 households. And this is not an exception, but rather the norm. Super Gas Udyog and many others have benefited from a loophole in the bylaw which states that the distance between human settlements and bottling plants should be at least five kilometres “if possible.” Exploiting a similar loophole in the bylaw, bottling plants, Sagarmatha Gas Udyog, Surya Gas Udyog and Chandeshwori Gas Udyog operate within a radius of 300 metres of each other in Banepa—if an accident were to occur here, the fire could quickly spread to other factories, further jeopardising people living in the nearby settlement.
But despite being tasked with licensing LPG bottling plants, the NOC continues to cite the lack of clear guidelines as an obstacle to stricter oversight. When quizzed about the Super Gas Udyog incident, Birendra Kumar Goit, the spokesperson of NOC, said, “The NOC is responsible only for licensing. There is a clear lack of policy that hinders us from taking any action.” Goit’s statement comes against the fact that NOC has been disregarding its own internal inspection procedures before it hands out licenses to bottlers. On December 25, when the Chandeswori Gas in Thapagaun, Banepa fell under NBSM’s scrutiny, it was revealed that the bottler received its license even though it did not have any safety protocols. It has been speculated the bottler was handed out the license because of its operator’s ‘high-level connection’ with officials at the NOC, which has the monopoly over the licensing of dealers of petroleum products.
Given the haphazard policies and oversight, some positive developments have taken place. Following the incident at Super Gas, NBSM even shut five gas bottlers—two in Banepa, two in Dhading and one in Birgunj. And in the fear of a wider fall out, all other gas bottlers have applied for the NS certification—a total of seven bottlers are now certified, three of those certifications coming after the Birgunj accident. This shows that if the regulators force the hand of private operators, then unscrupulous market players can be brought into the legal framework.
But much still remains to be done as there is still a defective distribution system of other highly inflammable petrol and diesel products. A study released by NBSM shows that half of the petrol stations operating in the country do not follow the safety instructions provided by NBSM.While most of the petrol pumps lack the adequate premise area and related infrastructures, a number of them have even been found to have constructed storage tanks beneath residential buildings.
With fossil fuels, for better or worse, playing such a crucial role in the economy and the day-to-day lives of the citizens, it is high time that concerned stakeholders ensure the safety of suppliers and consumers up and down the supply chain. Until they do so, the country will continue to play with fire. As of now, it is not a matter of if but when the next accident will happen.