ECONOMYNEXT – In a swift and blatant contradiction of a claim by key government officials that substandard accessories had caused some 800 cooking gas explosions in Sri Lanka since October, a presidential committee which probed the matter said on Tuesday (21) that a controversial composition change in the gas cylinder was, in fact, largely to blame.

Prof Shantha Walpolage, the head of the committee appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, told reporters that the hotly debated composition change was the main reason for the recent series of explosions which had become a major safety hazard to the public.

“The cylinders, regulators, stoves, and other equipment have remained unchanged. What was subjected to change was the gas composition,” Walpolage said, a day after his committee presented the fact finding report to President Rajapaksa.

More than 800 gas cylinder related explosions have occurred since October 28.  A 53-year-old woman was killed in an explosion that occurred in central Sri Lanka earlier this month, and no one has yet to officially take responsibility for the tragedy.

Related: Sri Lanka’s mysterious gas explosions become nobody’s baby

Walpolage said the conclusion was arrived at through a scientific data collection method, with information gathered from all stakeholders including both gas companies, the state-owned Litro Gas Lanka Ltd and Laugfs Gas (Pvt) Ltd, that make up Sri Lanka’s liquid petroleum (LP) gas duopoly. Data was also collected from testing labs and select locations where explosions had occurred.

As a short term solution, the expert proposed that the propane content in the gas cylinder be reduced to 30 percent while adding more ethyl mercaptan, a pungent-smelling chemical compound used as an additive for consumers to detect any leaks, to the mix.

Former Consumer Affairs Authority Executive director Thushan Gunawardena told media as early as April, well before the recent spate of explosions, that Litro had changed the composition of the gas inside the cylinders and increased the propane content to above 30 percent, while reducing butane.

The Court of Appeal earlier this month ordered that both Litro and Laugfs maintain a mix of 70 percent butane and 30 percent propane in the LP gas cylinders they sell, following the revelation.

Experts have hypothesised that increasing the propane content of the cylinder to 50 percent had resulted in high pressure which had led to leaks from the cylinder. However, this has yet to be proven scientifically.

Contradictory view at PMC briefing

The presidential committee’s finding, however, is completely contradictory to what some senior officials had said barely a day earlier at the Presidential Media Center (PMC), just before the Walpolage-led committee handed over its report to President Rajapaksa on Monday (20).

Jayantha de Silva, Secretary of the Ministry of Technology which is under the purview of President Rajapaksa, and Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon who spoke at the event claimed that used regulators and stoves could have been the reason for the explosions.

“The investigations carried out in many parts of the country have revealed that the equipment used for gas stoves, including the regulator, are substandard,” de Silva told a virtual media briefing organised by PMC and moderated by President’s Spokesman Kingsly Rathnayaka.

“A lasting solution will be provided to the issue by enabling the people to purchase equipment that meet the required standards within the next three months,” de Silva said.

The ministry secretary said the responsibility of ensuring that the accessories meet the stipulated standards will also be vested with the two gas companies in the future.

Litro chairman denies composition theory

Litro Gas Lank Ltd Chairman Theshara Jayasinghe was on the same panel at the PMC’s media briefing where he ruled out the composition hypothesis, claiming that the reported change had nothing to do with the explosions.

Jayasinghe said that there is no change in the composition of Litro cylinders and  foreign expertise is being sought in this regard. The public need not have any undue fear when using LP gas, he added.

“Though some have suggested that the cause of the gas leaks and explosions was a change in the composition of the gas, it has now been confirmed that none of the incidents reported so far have been caused by a change in composition,” he said.

The company has agreed to provide an insurance cover of one million rupees per person if such an incident occurs due to the standard of the gas, he said.

“Recommendations with Sri Lanka Standards (SLS) certification for LP gas have now been issued, and the gas composition is a mixture of 70% butane and 30% propane.”

Senior DIG Tennakoon said at the same media briefing that the Government Analysts’s department has conducted comprehensive investigations into the incidents.

“It has been reported that the majority of incidents have occurred due to substandard gas stove accessories and the improper use of such equipment,” Tennakoon said.

He said more than 15,000 cases of gas stove and regulator-related repairs were recorded throughout the country in 2019 as well as 2020, according to a police survey.

There is no cause for taking legal action as it has not been scientifically proven that these were conducted with a criminal intent, said Tennakoon.

At the event, the public was also asked to purchase higher quality gas stoves and equipment that meet the standards and from reputed companies. (Colombo/Dec22/2021)