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Like tying a time bomb to the leg of a housewife: Nimal De Silva

05 Dec 2021

  • Oil and gas expert Nimal De Silva weighs in on Sri Lanka’s explosive gas cylinder issue 
By Pamodi Waravita Liquefied Petroleum Gas, known commonly as LPG, is used in nearly every household for the preparation of food, and is by and large considered an essential commodity. However, in April 2021, when Litro Gas Lanka – the state-owned entity in the country’s LPG market – introduced a new 18-litre gas cylinder to the market, the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) raised concerns about the company changing the composition of gas to a 50:50 butane:propane ratio, from the usual 70:30. Concerns about this change were centred on the fact that this altered composition could lead to affect the internal pressure of the cylinders, and thus pose an increased risk of gas leaks. Litro later withdrew the controversial product from the market.  Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the end of the issue, as last month, an unusual number of LPG-related explosions were reported, with more than 30 such incidents reported on some days. Although both Litro and Laugfs Gas PLC have refuted claims that the incidents are linked to any issues with their cylinders or the gas composition, burning questions about the cause of the incidents remain unanswered.  Last week, the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Trade held an emergency meeting with industry experts to discuss the matter, among whom was Nimal De Silva, who carries over 45 years of experience in offshore oil and gas exploration, oil and gas transmission pipelines, petrochemical plants, and offshore wind energy. Having worked in over 20 countries, De Silva has been highly critical of the domestic market and the safety standards it follows.  The Morning spoke to De Silva over the weekend for his views and expertise on the recent incidents in Sri Lanka.  Following are excerpts from the interview:  Does a compositional change in gas cylinders lead to a change in pressure and risk?  Yes, definitely. Litro is not very sure what the composition is – sometimes they say 80:20 (butane to propane), or 70:30. They cannot say it varies on a 20% basis. An estimate is 2%. If they are saying it varies on a 20% basis, that is a guess; that is not an estimate.  If the composition is made 50:50, there is almost a 50% increase in pressure at our temperatures. That means the valve and the washer cannot hold this pressure. All other components in the market such as the hose and the regulator are designed to withstand a composition of 30:70 (propane:butane).  Moreover, both companies — Laugfs and Litro — must adhere to the same composition. Otherwise there is no standard in the domestic market.  So you believe that the Litro cylinders, which underwent a composition change in April are still in market circulation, despite the company saying that they took them out of circulation? They have to prove that they took those cylinders out of market circulation. We are suspecting that they are still in circulation and that is the problem.  Could there be any other reasons for the recent spate of incidents than the composition change?  There is a cylinder, valve, regulator, hose and cooker. A cylinder is like a pressure vessel. Sri Lanka also has a specification for the cylinder, but it is not at all detailed like the specifications in say, India. Sri Lanka only specifies the amount of pressure that the cylinder can withstand. There is no evidence that the companies clean the cylinders every five years.  Sri Lanka gets the cheapest gas, which means low quality gas with a lot of impurities. There is a small percentage of these impurities mixed in the cylinder and are present at the bottom of the cylinder. When you get a cylinder from the outlet, you pay for this little bit of impurities at the bottom as well. Thus, as the years go by, the impurities build up in the cylinder.  Thus, every five years, the companies are responsible for cleaning it. I believe that Laugfs has said that they do clean it, although we have no evidence of it. I do not think Litro has made a statement about this. Also in Sri Lanka, it is not specified that the companies must clean it. That is where the standards are lacking in this country. This cleaning process must be done, otherwise the companies are cheating the customer. Otherwise, the customers are paying for the junk as well.  A valve is not expensive, it only costs about $ 2. There is a specification for the valve as well. The valve is the most important part. Sri Lanka does not manufacture valves — they are imported. The valve is tightened by a machine onto the cylinder. In the Sri Lankan plants, only the gas filling is done. There is a rubber washer on the outside of the valve which gets damaged as the time goes by. The companies do not seem to be checking it. When the washer inside the valve gets damaged, a leak occurs. The companies know it. That must be checked every time the cylinder goes back to the plant. They must check it for leaks.  They must change this valve every time the cylinder is sent back to the plant as a safety precaution as this is a very low cost to the companies.  So you believe that the valves are not checked properly by the companies? If they do it, then we won’t have any leaks. People are conducting soap tests at home, which show that there are leaks from the cylinders. That means the companies have not checked it. If Litro is claiming that they have checked every cylinder, then how come there are cylinders in the market with leaks? There was a video circulating which shows the water bath that Litro claims to use to check for leaks from the cylinders. But that is a very crude way of checking for leaks. How can minor leaks be detected from such a water bath?  Some officials have stated that there are minor leaks occurring from any cylinder and that that is natural? Is that so? Is that the standard case? No, that should not be the case at all. There should not be any leak from any cylinder. That must be the safety standard they adhere to.  So the cylinder and the valve should be checked by the companies? Changing and checking the valve is the duty and responsibility of the companies. Nobody is taking action against this. The public could even think that the Ministers are covering this up. The cylinder and the valve are the responsibility of the supplier. If there is even a minor leak, they should not release it to the market.  The other components such as the hose, the regulator and the cooker are the responsibility of the consumer and the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA).  Last month, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) took a number of samples to conduct tests to check the composition changes. However, these tests have come under criticism by the two LPG companies. Where exactly should the samples be taken from?  They must take the samples from the liquefied form.  The LPG companies have mentioned that they do not trust Sapugaskanda’s lab facilities. Can the test results from Sapugaskanda be trusted? Yes, definitely. Why not? Sapugaskanda has been there for a long time.  The CPC is said to have sent their results to the University of Moratuwa, which will compile a report. Have you seen the report by the University of Moratuwa? Was this discussed at the Consultative Committee meeting which occurred in Parliament last week? No, that was not shown to me at the Consultative Committee meeting. It also was not at all productive or useful, as it was just politicians who spoke the most. Us experts, including me, only got a small chance to present our views. I do not think it was a useful exercise.  What should be the immediate next steps?  The Government should take immediate action for safety. They must ensure that the valves are checked and maintained properly by the companies and that the cylinders are cleaned every five years. The gas cylinder I use at home — the last inspection was done in May 2016 — as indicated by the date on the cylinder. That means it has been in circulation for more than five years. As I mentioned to you, the cylinder valve should be replaced every five years. Probably most of the explosions may have occurred because the gas companies have not changed the valve on time. That is quite dangerous.  This issue actually disproportionately affects women. This is like tying a time bomb to the leg of a housewife. In our culture, a kitchen is a woman’s domain. The first thing she does is make tea in the morning in the kitchen for her husband. She spends the most amount of time in the kitchen. I am surprised why female MPs are not more concerned about this or more vocal about this. Because it is women, they are not considering this issue seriously.  In the longer run, there should be better transparency with companies consistently updating the Parliament about their adherence to safety standards. The company websites only display the price and where you can buy the products from. There is nothing about the standards or safety standards and it is only in English. How can customers access it and understand them? These things must also be fixed.  Any message to the consumers? Some precautions must be taken at home. Before turning on the gas cylinder in the morning, open all windows and doors so there is sufficient ventilation in the room. Do not use a mobile phone or any other battery-operated device in the kitchen as this could cause a spark. Even the battery-operated gas leak detectors which are in market circulation should not be used in the vicinity of the cylinder as they could cause sparks and subsequent explosions.

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