How EPRA, ministries dropped the ball on Embakasi death plant

Aftermath of fire at Mraadi area in Embakasi, Nairobi. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

The firm that had been operating the cooking gas plant that caused a major explosion Thursday night at Nairobi’s Embakasi was operating illegally. 

It is emerging that the owners of the cooking gas storage and filling plant that was the source of the explosion were convicted criminals. The high court had last year found them guilty of operating the plant illegally.

According to the Petroleum Institute of East Africa (PIEA), an industry lobby, the plant had also been raided severally and even demolished twice for illegally refilling gas cylinders that belonged to other companies.

The Energy and Petroleum Regulatory (EPRA) also said it had on three occasions last year turned down applications that the firm made to operate a gas storage and refilling plant. 

The company would go on to set up the plan that has now caused deaths, left hundreds of residents with injuries, some of them life threatening.

In turning down the applications, EPRA had reservations that the firm was setting up in a highly populated area.

The regulator however appears not to have followed up the matter while the firm never showed up on its radar, despite EPRA undertaking regulatory scrutiny on operators of cooking gas storage and refilling plants and shutting a number of them while penalising their operators.

Despite reports in the media as well as information from security agencies, the firm appeared to have gone on to start operations. 

Firefighters put off fire after a gas explosion in Embakasi. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

“Applications for construction permits for a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) storage and filling plant at the site were received by EPRA on March 19, 2023, June 20, 2023, and July 31, 2023. All applications were rejected as they did not meet the set criteria for an LPG storage and filling plant in that area,” said EPRA in a statement. 

“The main reason for the rejection was failure of the designs to meet the safety distances. EPRA noted the high population density around the proposed site and the applicant was requested to submit a Qualitative Risk Assessment (QRA) clearly indicating the radiation blast profiles in the unfortunate case of an explosion like the one that happened yesterday (on Thursday).”

The company, said EPRA, never provided the requested QRA resulting in the rejection of the applications. It later notified the firm why its application had been rejected. 

EPRA added that it undertakes regular surveillance across the country and has over the years shut down companies operating illegally or where standards have slipped. 

This particular firm however appears to have slipped through the cracks. 

“Administrative actions are always taken to ensure that operating licences for all plants rated below the high safety integrity status are revoked. In addition, surveillance and enforcement actions are taken including demolishing illegal plants operating across the country and curbing malpractice in the sector,” said EPRA.

The Petroleum Institute of East Africa in a statement painted the picture of a criminal enterprise, which not only disregarded all the safety rules of handling cooking gas but whose owners had been convicted of the illegal refilling of gas cylinders. 

The institute further disagrees with how the courts handled the case, declining to give stiff penalties for the owner of the facility and one of his clients as well as releasing the LPG tankers that had been impounded. One of these tankers, PIEA said, was the one responsible for the Thursday explosion in Embakasi.

“Following our visit at the site after the explosion and early (Friday) morning, we have established that this isthe same site where a criminal case was instituted against the proprietor of this facility and some of his clients on November 9, 2020 under criminal case number E3776/2020 at Milimani Law Courts in Nairobi,” said Wanjiku Manyara, general manager PIEA. 

“All the accused persons were found guilty and convicted with a sentence issued on May 18, 2023… the magistrate of Court Number 11 imposed total fines of Sh500,000 or a one-year imprisonment instead of the Sh20 million or five years for the proprietor (first accused) and a fine of Sh50,000 for the second accused instead of a fine of Sh10 million or five years’ imprisonment,” 

Paramedics administer first aid to survivors after a gas explosion in Embakasi. [Mike Kihaki, Standard]

She added that the truck that had been impounded by the authorities was the one that caused the Thursday explosion. 

“The magistrate continued to release all motor vehicles including two LPG tankers together with the confiscated LPG bulk with a net weight of 4.660 kilogrammes, despite the law providing for mandatory forfeiture,” said Manyara. 

“One of the tankers procedurally released by the courts… is one of the tankers involved in this incident.”

“Despite the actions and convictions, the proprietor continued operating the illegal storage and refilling facility without the bare minimum safety standards and qualified LPG personnel as required by the law leading to this unfortunate catastrophe, which could have been avoided should the letter and spirit of the law have been followed.”

The explosion on Thursday evening adds to the numerous instances that have left many Kenyans dead or grappling with disability, yet the energy sector authorities appear unmoved. 

The LPG Regulations of 2019 and other laws spell out how cooking gas should be handled, specifying how storage and refilling plans should look like from design stage to day to day operations as well as transportation of the gas not just for commercial purposes but also by households when refilling their cylinders.

“A person shall not transport more than three filled cylinders by road, except in accordance with the terms of a valid licence issued by the Authority,” said the regulations on transportation of LPG by consumers refilling for their domestic use.

EPRA further has regulations in place that govern the licensing of transportation, handling and sale of cooking gas by businesses dealing in the fuel.

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