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Opinions of Saturday, 14 October 2017

Columnist: Alhaji A. R Gomda & Jamila Akweley Okertchiri

Gas explosion: National nightmare

Ghana woke up to another preventable gas explosion last week. It was certainly not a force majeure but one prompted by breaches of safety standards of the petroleum industry.

Expectedly, it found its way in the agenda of the country’s cabinet as it tested the government’s ability to not only respond to emergency but how to avert future recurrence and save both lives and properties.

The explosion which occurred during the late afternoon on October 7, 2017, claimed eight lives, one of them a journalist who died on duty. Over 130 people who were going about their business in and around the Mansco fuel station located at the Atomic Junction off the Accra Madina road sustained various degrees of burns and other injuries.

A big bang followed by a lit sky above the fuel station gave an orange colour to the otherwise grey firmament. It sent heat waves across hundreds of kilometres from the scene, causing chaos in surrounding communities as people fled from the confines of their houses and headed for nowhere.

A few minutes after the bang was heard from as far as the Spintex road, the National Ambulance Service and the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) raced to the scene to address the emergency, as did personnel of the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS).

Law enforcement agents cordoned off the area a route drill when emergencies of this nature occur.

President Akufo-Addo and Vice President Dr Mahamadu Bawumia, together with some government officials, visited the scene of the event and survivors of the explosion on separate occasions in the following days.

The gas eruption is the second in the last 11 months after 11 people lost their lives following the December 22 gas explosion at La, near the Trade Fair Centre.

Talks about the fuel distribution safety in Ghana is a ritual that is usually not followed up by real actions but President Akufo-Addo has expressed a determination to depart from tiptoeing around the problem, hence the recently announced measures to obviate future recurrence.

“I feel strongly about this. It can’t continue,” President Akufo-Addo said after surveying the damage which included burnt cars and stalls.

Cause of Fire

Abum Sarkodie, Executive Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said the tragedy is of “grave concern” to the EPA, indicating that the agency was working with the National Petroleum Authority (NPA), Fire Service, Town and Country Planning, oil marketing companies to understand what happened last Saturday.

But earlier reports indicated that the fire was started by a kebab seller who was plying his trade close to the fuel station.

The EPA, he said, has constituted a technical committee to review all applications to improve quality assurance. It will also enhance its staff expertise to do the review.

The guidelines, he explained, were reviewed only two years ago after the June 3 explosion that claimed 151 lives in 2015 at a GOIL fuel station at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle.

The EPA boss stated that the guidelines allow for the stations to be located in commercial areas. He made an exception for gas stations, explaining that the guidelines restrict the location of LPG stations to light or heavy industrial areas.

But this explanation raises more questions about the legitimacy of a demand by students of the University of Professional Studies Accra (UPSA) for a fuel station close to the university campus to be relocated, following the tragedy which affected some of its students.

The station, owned by Strategic Energy Limited (SEL), is a few metres away from the central lecture block of the university which accommodates over eleven thousand students.

No Blame

Mr Abum Sarkodie has stated that his outfit cannot entirely take the blame for last Saturday’s gas explosion at Atomic Junction or the citing of fuel station in residential areas.

Kwasi Eshun, who lives close to a gas filling station at Gbawe in the Ga South Municipality of the Greater Accra Region, expressed fear about his safety and that of his family in view of the frequent gas explosions.

He suggested that gas filling stations be taken away from residential areas, while the National Petroleum Authority and Environmental Protection Agency undertook constant monitoring to check safety standards of those facilities to forestall future occurrence.

He said that even though as the agency they have a hand in providing documents for the affected gas station to operate, they are not the only unit per the laws of the country to ensure that they (gas station) comply with the required safety precautions required of them.

“… Safety measures do not come under the jurisdiction of the EPA . . . a lot of institutions are responsible for ensuring sound environmental procedures in the country, so partly, I can accept some blame but not all. The Bulk of what happened can’t be directed at the doorsteps of the EPA,” he revealed.

He indicated, “We were involved in giving the operator the permit to do so . . . and at a point were mandated to go for inspection and monitoring which we did, so if we left the site and we went back to our office and somebody was to discharge and there is a leakage of gas resulting in a fire outbreak, I think the blame should be laid squarely at the doorstep of the person who was involved in the discharge.”

For the EPA, the concern is about the safety of citizens and not necessarily about the siting of the fuel stations. But organised groups and citizens have raised great concerns over the springing up of fuel stations within residential areas.

Figures from Deputy Information Minister Kojo Oppong-Nkrumah indicate that about 400 gas stations are located in residential areas across the country.

Meanwhile, the president has stated that the government would soon come out with a policy intervention to address the frequent gas explosions.

Closure of Fuel Stations

Ghana has recorded eight major explosions in three years from 2014. Six of them occurred in the Greater Accra Regions, while the Western and Central Regions have recorded one each.

A manager at EPA explained at the press briefing that as a regulator it carefully considers applications for fuel stations and therefore does not “just get up and close them down”.

The EPA said it has had cause to close down some stations to be re-opened only after some directives have been implemented.

There are cases like Mamba Gas in Santa Maria and Odorkor which was closed down in 2016 for serious lack of safety controls.

Way Forward

The Ministry of Energy also gave clearance to the National Petroleum Authority (NPA) to hire 200 auditors to make sure that safety standards are complied with at all gas stations across the country.

The National Petroleum Authority (NPA) has also indicated its resolve to tighten the processes of acquiring licenses by gas distributing companies to reduce accidents at fuel depots.

According to the NPA Chief Executive, Hassan Tampuli, the authority is to embark on a nationwide training for all persons involved in the offloading of gas at the pumps, including the drivers and their mates.

Those who fail to participate in the safety and training exercises will not have their licenses renewed by the NPA, Mr Tampuli stated.

The recent gas explosion has triggered a national conversation unprecedented in the history of national tragedies one which cuts across party lines. Someone quipped that it has given government the opportunity to address the mushroom-like springing of fuel stations across the country many of them not adhering to the laid-down safety standards.

With the newly-announced decisions from Cabinet, one of them being the freezing on construction of new stations until safety audits have been concluded, we can conclude that these are the most far-reaching measures yet to address the rampant gas explosions in the country.