Just when it seemed as if disasters were easing off, a man-made calamity erupted. Four days into the New Year, a gas explosion in Kaduna State incinerated eight people, including an academic. The tragedy occurred at a retail outlet in Sabon Tasha, Kaduna metropolis, which was discharging cooking gas from a bigger cylinder to a smaller one. In response, the Kaduna State Government, the Department of Petroleum Resources and other layers of authority swiftly signified their intention to review the operations of gas vendors.
Excluding the retailer, the other victims were perhaps circumstantial victims. The midday blast was underpinned by the laxity of regulation in the country. Ironically, Simon Mallam, a professor of physics, who was also the Chairman/CEO of the Abuja-based Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission, had innocently gone to a barber’s before the explosion ensnared him. Mallam, who had just returned to the country after an official tour of the United States, reportedly went to the barber’s shop with his grandson. For a country that is short-handed of specialists to drive its nuclear energy ambitions, losing Mallam in this careless manner is a massive blow.
Apart from him, the police stated that the conflagration also consumed Wale Ajayi, Victor Asoegwu, and Michael Ernest. The death toll increased by three at the weekend, as DPR officials discovered more corpses while conducting further analysis at the blast site. Four others were injured. The fire gutted property worth N16.40 million in four shops, perhaps because the regulators failed to sanitise the operations of combustible items.
Unfortunately, avoidable tragedies feature prominently in Nigerian life. They are being expressed in road accidents, boats capsizing, sale of poisonous foods and generator fume wiping out whole families. In this case, initial investigations undertaken by the KDSG indicated that the retailer was not qualified to vend gas, having not been properly registered by the DPR. In virtually all Nigerian towns, hundreds of unlicensed gas retailers abound, and this case gained attention because of the calamity.
Even now, many of these illegal gas retailers are still doing brisk business without minding the danger they pose to the wellbeing of society. They are taking advantage of government’s campaign to boost the use of gas for cooking, which is cleaner than the firewood, or kerosene stoves. In turn, this will reduce deforestation. However, the policy focuses mainly on gas usage. Government, through the DPR and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, ought to have matched the proliferation with the enforcement of the appropriate regulatory framework.
Although the DPR is the major player here, regulatory loophole is mainly responsible for the ghastly incidents being recorded in the subsector. In quick succession, Lagos, the country’s commercial hub, witnessed two separate incidents in 2018. First, a leak at a gas plant in the Magodo area of the state consumed two lives in January. In addition, three gas reservoir tanks, a truck laden with gas, a building and other equipment were engulfed. A few hours later, another incident in Badagry resulted in five deaths and eight people being injured.
When the outrage that greeted the disasters dissipated, things continued abnormally. These days, gas retail outlets are still noticeably operating at petrol stations. This is doubly dangerous. In November 2017 in Owerri, Imo State, four people lost their lives after a gas outlet exploded on a petrol station premises. Ordinarily, this ought to have triggered a detailed review on these two sensitive operations. To the extent that in September 2019, the Nigerian Association of Liquefied Petroleum Gas Marketers warned the government about the dangers of situating gas plants on the premises of petrol stations, things have not changed.
Apart from the explosion in the number of illegal gas retail outlets, there is also much apprehension about the nature of equipment being used. In this, fake, substandard or outright expired valves and gas cylinders are in circulation. Preliminary investigation of the Kaduna disaster indicated that the fatal explosion was ignited by a faulty cylinder. For years, SON has battled to mitigate this. Last August, it seized a 40-foot container laden with substandard gas cylinders. The dangerous cargo was valued at over N38 million. Second, in December, it descended on a warehouse in Lagos, where it impounded another set of defective gas cylinders. The 5,000 cylinders were worth N51.3 million, SON said as it destroyed them. A few days after the Kaduna fatalities, the DPR sealed 15 LPG skid plants in Osun State during routine surveillance. This demonstrates a renewed sense of responsibility.
In fairness, after every public show of seizure/destruction of this hazardous equipment, SON usually enlightens the public about the inherent dangers associated with gas cylinders. One of them is those who use 12.5 kilogramme cylinders and above as camping gas. “Having a cooking pot on top of the cylinder as high as 12.5kg stands the risk of tilting over,” SON warned. “It is also highly dangerous to subject the high volume of LPG in a high-volume capacity cylinder to heat from the cooker that is directly on top of the cylinder.” To forestall disaster, it recommended the use of only 3kg, 5kg and 6.25kg as camping gas.
Proactively, SON and DPR ought to set new standards in enforcement, prosecuting illegal retail outlet operators that are causing fatalities. The regulators should deepen their public enlightenment, particularly about the 15-year expiration rule of cylinders, which must also undergo requalification thrice within this time frame.
With the right policies laced with incentives for poor households, and solid enforcement, India multiplied its LPG household coverage from 56.2 per cent to 89 per cent between 2014 and 2018, government said. Therefore, SON, DPR and state environmental authorities should not relent in firm enforcement. They should cancel the operating licences of petrol stations that are co-locating with skid plants within the window stipulated by the DPR.