LP Gas Disasters A Wakeup Call For Tougher Product Standards
By Thameenah Razeek
Imagine being trapped inside your house with a ticking time bomb. This is exactly how many Sri Lankans are feeling at the moment, with dozens of explosions related to domestic LP gas cylinders being reported from many areas around the country.
Sri Lankans have been using LP gas for domestic use for a number of decades, which over the years, has proven to be one of the most cost-effective, efficient, environmentally-friendly, and most importantly, safe methods of cooking.
Apart from random, isolated incidents of explosions, mostly due to leakages resulting from faulty regulators, leaking hoses and electricity issues, there has never been in the history of LP gas use in this country where dozens of explosions were reported within just one month.
Although gas companies and politicians attempted to brush the issue under the carpet, placing the blame on the consumers, the sheer number of incidents has now proven to be absurdly too many to be ignored. Also, a fear has set among the public to keep gas cylinders inside residences, most of who have started seeking alternative methods of cooking.
However, the issue has finally led the Government to appoint several committees to probe the matter and one gas company to temporarily suspend distribution of LP gas cylinders in the market.
On 4 November, three persons were injured as a result of a domestic LP gas cylinder explosion in Weligama, Sri Lanka’s southernmost district; little did the locals know that this was the start of a much larger calamity that would befall the island nation. On 16 November, another gas cylinder explosion was reported at a private restaurant in Ratnapura, and on 20 November a popular fast-food outlet in Colombo 7 was completely destroyed by fire also caused by a gas leak. Now, as the number of incidents increase, so do the number of committees formed to investigate the disaster, making minimal difference with full capacity of recommendations.
The incidents have sparked public outcry and anxiety and anyone who considered pursuing national security has now lost “residential security”.
What is the chemical makeup of LP Gas?
Consultant (Petroleum) of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) Cyril Suduwella explained that LP gas is a mixture of Propane and Butane, but may possibly contain other hydrocarbons and compounds. He expressed that Propane and Butane are extremely safe fuels and can be used in increased capacity in any weather condition and in any place.
He noted that in Sri Lanka, it was discovered in the 1970s that LP Gas had a maximum of 30 per cent Propane and 70 per cent Butane with the best compression because the mixture of Propane and Butane in an LP gas cylinder is liquid under compression, Butane can be liquefied by compression because its boiling point is near 0 degrees Celsius, whereas Propane is nearly -42 degrees Celsius.
Observing that a high pressure is required to preserve the gas as a liquid, he claimed the atmosphere inside a gas cylinder is at low pressure. When there is low pressure inside the cylinder, whatever comes out ends in a place where there is also a low pressure including all other accessories, peripheral instruments or anything else connected to the cylinder, but subject to all equipment and other devices operating properly.
If there are any leaks in the pressure system, the whole pressure in the cylinder could be applied to the stove, resulting in a fire. As a result, it is not the fault of the material, but rather the responsibility of the decision-makers to determine what is the safest composition for Sri Lankan consumers.
Mechanism of regulation
“When it comes to LP gas suppliers, LP gas importers have a monopoly on employing any Propane and Butane composition they want, because the boiling points of the fundamental gases differ in parts of the world. We predict the creation of an LNG power plant in Sri Lanka, where the boiling point is -162, necessitating high pressure, which might be framed as an inappropriate implementation, and Sri Lanka should instead have a Complex Natural Gas Infrastructure (CNG),” he said.
Speaking further, Suduwella revealed that when the liquid inside the cylinder is low on Propane, you acquire additional propane which has no significant impact, but when it comes to other gadgets, specific conditions must be met. Specifications can occasionally lead to the adoption of ineffective devices. The most significant aspect is the standard, as well as the regulatory process, because this sort of petroleum distribution necessitates the presence of a regulatory arm.
He argued that because the PUCSL is the sole expert in Sri Lanka for petroleum sector regulation, the Government may delegate power to the PUCSL to manage LP gas difficulties if a scenario like this arises.
When questioned why the Government has not done that, he responded that they cannot do it without the right permission because the PUCSL works with the Ministry of Energy on diesel, gasoline, and kerosene. “LP gas is governed by a separate ministry, and if the Government requests that the PUCSL control LP gas cylinders and their composition, the PUCSL will undoubtedly comply.We cannot do anything unless we are invited. There are systems in place, but they are not at the necessary levels. If there is a regulator, importers will be unable to import the entities they desire since the regulatory arm will undoubtedly certify the system and ensure that it is properly maintained,” he noted.
What exactly is Mercaptan?
Mercaptan, also known as methanethiol, is a harmless but pungent-smelling gas that has been compared to the stench of rotting cabbages or stinky socks.
Suduwella explained that Mercaptan is often added to natural gas, which is colourless and odourless, to make it easier to detect and that the gas is an organic substance made of carbon, hydrogen and sulphur that is found naturally in living organisms, including the human body where it is a waste product of normal metabolism. It is one among the compounds that causes the foul odour of bad breath and flatulence.
Within 30 minutes of eating asparagus, people can detect the characteristic odour of mercaptan in their urine, since the vegetable includes chemicals that are swiftly broken down to methanethiol. However, not everyone can detect mercaptan in their urine since some people are immune to the odour due to a genetic defect. Mercaptan has a significant advantage for industrial applications in that it can be detected by most individuals in extremely small levels, less than one part per million. This makes it an excellent addition to odourless gases and it is combustible, just like natural gas.
Recently, the Minister of Energy assumed that the recent fires from LP gas cylinders were caused by manufacturers either reducing the amount of Mercaptan in cylinders or not mixing it at all with the LP gases.Suduwella stated that having Mercaptan on hand is essential while producing LP gases.
When asked if there is any standard for this, he noted that there are SLS standards for composition and pressure, adding that the standard has to be updated, but the main issue is a lack of a proper regulatory arm.
“We can debate the LP gas composition and other scientific concerns. In Sri Lanka, we should maintain the pressure level of 3:7 regardless of other factors such as weather. Other equipment malfunctioned as a result of the composition change,”
But why should the composition be altered?
If corporations are attempting to modify their makeup, it is only for financial reasons. He claims that containing gases for a 5:6 ration is less expensive.
Passing the ball
M.S.S. Fernando, Director of Engineering Standards at the SLSI said that while they are known as the regulatory agency to apply standards in the quality of products in Sri Lanka, they will just present a standard and the relevant authority will implement it. While they do not control LP gas production, they do have a standard for LP gas compressing, which he could not recall at the time of the interview. He also added that SLSI will not visit locations where LP gas-related accidents have been reported since they lack the authority to do so.
Gunawardena vs. Siddhika
Emails between former Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), Thushan Gunawardena, and Director General of the Sri Lanka Standard Institute (SLSI), Dr. Siddhika G. Senaratne, highlighted that the two LP gas importing companies stipulated an 80 per cent Butane and 20 per cent Propane mixture as to what they are bringing, and no Government regulatory body has ever verified whether what they said they will be bringing is the real deal.
In response to Gunawardena’s question, Dr. Senaratne expressed that even if Sri Lanka lacks laboratory facilities to determine the LP gas composition, any regulatory body can request an accredited lab report from the exporting country stating the actual LP gas composition for each consignment they bring. So far no regulatory authority in Sri Lanka has taken such action. This is to do conformance testing for the composition of what they bring in with what they claim to be the composition.
However, Gunawardena was convinced that Dr. Senaratne was incorrect in claiming that the CAA had not requested a test result because, contrary to her assumption, it had an internationally qualified lab affirm the composition to be 50:50. He further stated that Dr. Senaratne is incorrect in claiming that CAA can verify for compliance. He questioned how CAA can ensure conformity while SLSI has yet to produce a standard for Propane plus Butane. Section 12.2 of the CAA legislation provides unequivocally that we can check conformity after SLSI publishes the standard.
In his final remarks in an email dated 25 August 2021, he proposed that SLSI provide an uninterrupted supply of gas to the country’s consumers while we check the composition for standards.
“Frankly, I am not worried about SLSI or CAA’s reputation but more concerned about the government’s reputation taking a beating as a result of SLSI taking a slow lukewarm approach being more worried about your own reputation than Government’s reputation,” he said.
Dr. Siddhika remarked in an email to Gunawardena on 24 August 2021 that if Gunawardena could show SLSI any other country in the globe having a standard with 80 percent Butane and 20 per cent Propane, then they can quickly change the existing standard, which the SLSI expert committee has not been able to do thus far.
“Also, we are talking about gas not liquid. That means we cannot give exact values. Even if SLSI includes a composition in our Standard it has to be a range and certainly not exact values. It is not as easy as you think to stipulate compositions when it comes to Gas. So, again if the expert committee who formulated the LP gas standard did not include the composition because it is not possible, then blaming SLSI for not doing its job on national TV is not the right thing to do. CAA is to partly blame as well even though we as SLSI will not go on national TV blaming CAA because you do not need Standards all the time to bring regulations,” he said.
The Police denied that the first death was caused by an LP gas-related accident claiming it was a suicide. In Sri Lanka, we are entering an era where the Government is unaware of who is and is not competent of handling specific difficulties in specific settings.
If the PUCSL is willing to take on the job of overseeing and regulating the LP gas industry, it is unclear why the Government is pursuing SLSI, which is merely a standard for its name and not a duty. How longer is the Government going wait as more dead bodies pile up without making a single move to stop delivering inferior goods to the public?