By Rajan Philips –
Not enough Litro Gas and Laugfs Gas (not quite the Laughing Gas with Lankan typos) lit up Sri Lanka’s political skyline with kitchen fires for nearly a month. On Friday, always the day for changing political channels, the whole island was plunged into darkness for a few hours. In other news, the entire directorate of Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment, the national counter for receiving foreign investments, is reported to have stepped down with immediate effect. And in the midst of it all, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country to attend the Indian Ocean Conference (IOC) in Abu Dhabi, where he is billed to deliver the keynote address on the conference theme, “Ecology, Economy, Epidemic.” While one should not begrudge presidential travels, one cannot help noticing that the President is appearing to become more at home outside the country than in the country. After all, he was (and potentially still is) a dual citizen.
There is yet no conclusive explanation for the spate of kitchen explosions involving LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) cylinders in different parts of the country in recent weeks, although it is being reported that according to the State Ministry of Co-Operative Services, “the two main LP gas distributors have been advised to suspend their distribution until they brought the Ethyl Mercaptan volume up to standard.” Curiously, while the whole country has been awash in news reports about gas cylinder explosions, this is the first time there is any mention of “Ethyl Mercaptan.”
Mercaptan is foul-smelling Methanethiol that is added to LPG gas in cylinders to help its detection when leaked. It would seem that Mercaptan was not being added in sufficient quantities to gas cylinders that were being put on the market. If this is true or not, we know not. And that is why, to paraphrase Philip Gunawardena’s wisecrack to questioning police officers in a different context, there is a government to find out.
On the electricity front, different reasons have been suggested for the nationwide power failure on Friday – that it was due to the breakdown of a major transmission line, and/or due to problems at the coal power plant in Norochcholai and generators at Sapugaskanda. Power has been restored for the most part, but future power cut warnings have been given amidst the ongoing protests and threats of trade union action by Ceylon Electricity Board professionals and workers to the government’s decision to enter into an agreement with a US company, New Fortress Energy, giving it a near monopoly over the supply of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG).
In the absence of plausible explanations, sabotage rumours and conspiracy theories are filling the vacuum. Lesser mortals like yours truly are not good at conspiracies and these theories are a tad difficult for us to understand. What is not difficult to understand is the government’s lack of quick response to these sudden eruptions. A convoluted theory for the LPG explosions seems to be that the same masterminds behind the Easter bombings are at work again – for the benefit of whom, God only knows. But this is a dangerous game, more dangerous than the fallopian fantasy, or the Trincomalee corridor that Americans were supposed to create through the now aborted Millennium Compact.
The ever creative SJB MP Harin Fernando, is seeing “foul play between Litro and the government.” According to Mr. Fernando, the spate of explosions is all a ploy to make the gas industry unpopular and use it as justification to sell off Litro to financially benefit the government – which is fast running out of badly needed foreign currencies and is printing away valueless local monies. Meanwhile, the President of the CEB Trade Union Collective, Malaka Wickramasinghe, is reported to have said that “the power outage occurred at around 11:30 a.m., which is not a time when a massive load is present in the system, therefore it is fair to assume as an act of sabotage.”
From the electricity management side, CEB General Manager M.R. Ranatunga has also indicated to the media that “he suspects the island wide power failure maybe an act of sabotage by the Trade Unions.” And he “dismissed rumors that a request had been made to the army to take over the restoration of power.” Interestingly, the investigation of alleged sabotage is being carried out by the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD). After the Chief Engineer of the Business and Operations Strategy Division of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) lodged a complaint with the Slave Island Police Station.
One finds a striking anomaly here. A national power failure is being reported to the Slave Island Police Station. Whereas Catholic priests and activists who were questioning police actions and their public statements on the Easter Sunday tragedy were being summoned by the CID on directives, aka personal complaints, given by the Director General of State Intelligence Services. The specific threat of arrest to Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando would now seem to have been put rest following assurances by the Attorney General to the Supreme Court. And God Bless the Supreme Court for reprimanding the Attorney General for his cavalier proclivity for withdrawing indictments to please political powers.
This is how things are in Sri Lanka! Now, to kitchen fires.
Better Safe than Sorry
According to a reported statement by State Minister (Co-operative Services, Marketing Development, and Consumer Protection) Lasantha Alagiyawanna, 213 gas explosions have been reported between January 2015 and 31 October 2021. 131 of them, more than half, have been this year from 1 January to 1 December. Last week there were reports of eleven incidents within a 24 hour period. While domestic gas explosions are not uncommon, the frequency of incidents this year, and in November alone, required much quicker and more comprehensive responses by the government and the suppliers than what has been on offer so far.
The use of LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) gas in portable cylinders for cooking, is quite common in several countries. They are also a hazardous appurtenance prone to accidents if not handled with due care. For this reason, in many western countries it is illegal to use gas cylinders inside a house. They are only permitted to be used for outdoor – barbeque (BBQ) – cooking. Indoor cooking appliances are either electrical or based on natural gas supplied through pipeline infrastructure.
In other countries, big and small, where electricity costs are prohibitive and there is no natural gas and pipe infrastructure for supply, the gas cylinders have provided a convenient alternative to traditional firewood and biomass cooking. LPG gas cylinders have become ubiquitous in upscale kitchens as well as shanty dwellings – from Brazil to China and hundreds of countries in between.
Although they are both crude oil products, LPG and natural gas are different in composition, heat energy content and density. LPG is either propane or butane, or a mix of both. Natural gas is primarily methane. Natural gas is also lighter than air and more safely dissipates when leaked, unlike LPG which is heavier and fills up in lower, confined spaces. One advantage LPG has over natural gas is in storage and portability. LPG can be stored and moved in tanks or cylinders. Natural gas requires special cryogenic tanks for storage and pipeline for consumers.
In a recent scientific journal article on domestic gas explosions in India, its academic authors identify Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) as a cleaner source of cooking fuel. The use of firewood and biomass for cooking by hundreds of millions of households has been a major source of pollution in India. The increasing use of LPG gas cylinders is seen as a welcome change. Registered LPG users in India have more than doubled from 106 million in 2008/09 to 263 million in 2017/18.
Similar to the practice in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the domestic LPG supply in India is provided in 14.2 kg and 5.0 kg cylinders. According to the article, the gas supply in India is given a faint but foul smell by adding Mercaptan (foul-smelling Methanethiol) to help its detection when leaked. In addition to settling down, the heavier LPG also “condenses the water vapor in it to form a whitish fog,” making it easy to identify. While there have been cases of LPG explosions in Indian households, the journal article reviews the case of a rather horrendous blast when two women were trying to refill in their kitchen, a 5 kg cylinder with gas from a 14.2 kg cylinder, while cooking was going on. Both died on the spot and their burnt remains were ghastly.
Hopefully, no one in Sri Lanka will attempt refilling between cylinders (among neighbours), or tamper with gas supply accessories when the cooking fire is on. There are also basic safety tips while using domestic LPG gas cylinders: keep all accessories and knobs out of reach for children; and shut the cylinder valve off before turning the burner off, so as to burn of all the gas released from the cylinder. What might be more difficult to achieve in many households is to ensure that the kitchen or cooking areas are well ventilated and facilitate through-air flow.
Safety education is important and should pervade all levels of communication – from schools, to media, and advertising. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka like so many countries where the use of LPG gas cylinders is widespread, does not have functioning safety and fire/emergency agencies at the local level. In such absence, it is fair to expect the suppliers of LPG gas to take the lead role in ensuring safety with government support.
The most rumoured allegation so far has been that the proportions of Propane and Butane in recent LPG supplies were changed to an even 50-50 split from the regular 70 (butane) to 30 (propane) ratio. And that is the reason for the recent explosions. Both Litro Gas and Laugfs Gas have vehemently denied this and have also contended that it would be uneconomical for them to increase the proportion of propane which costs more than butane. State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna has also confirmed this. The Government Analyst and the Consumer Affairs Authority would also appear to be in disagreement with the alleged change in the proportions of the two gases. The University of Moratuwa Experts’ Committee appointed by the government has also made no reference to it in its first public statement as reported in the media. Whether anything different will come later on, we know not.
What is mystifying is why this allegation (about changing the gas mix) cannot be put to rest promptly and authoritatively by the government. Or, of course, if the allegation is correct it should be confirmed promptly and addressed without delay. As if it does not have enough worries on its plate, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation is reported to have done tests on the gas composition and its report, which has not been publicised, apparently “confirms that if the gas composition is 50% propane and 50% butane, there is a higher risk of gas leaks.” This is academic, the real question is about the actual proportion of gases in the two samples that CPC is reported to have tested.
While the CPC’s findings have reportedly been sent to the University of Moratuwa for review, the gas suppliers are rejecting CPC’s credentials to make this determination. Litro Gas has even said that CPC has a conflict of interest as a potential competitor planning to enter the LPG cylinder market on its own. That will be some competition between two ‘State enterprises’ – if you will pardon the oxymoron. Still after one year and 131 explosions, the country is no where closer to a plausible explanation. Everyone is going round in circles, if not circus.
There is also great deal of confusion about the applicable standards and regulations for the LPG gas industry. According to State Minister Alagiyawanna (who seems to be carrying on his shoulders all the political cylinders on the LPG matter), Sri Lanka has no regulations to deal with the industry and there are no designated agencies to supervise them. “We have no legal laboratory in Sri Lanka to check the quality of domestic gas,” the Minister has specifically said.
The Minister’s worry is supported by Chairman Janaka Ratnayake of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). According to him, a standard for the Liquid Petroleum (LP) gas has already been formulated by the Commission, but “the PUCSL does not have the legal powers to enforce the standard.” Who does, who will, and when? Until then, the country will be put through multiple rumour mills and conspiracy machines. And is this how things will continue to be in Sri Lanka?