End of an era as KPC decommissions Kenya’s oldest pipeline
By Macharia Kamau and Wainaina Wambu
| Nov 28th 2021 | 6 min read
After 43 years, Kenya’s oldest pipeline is being decommissioned, retiring one of the most iconic facilities that helped shape the country’s economic history.
The Mombasa-Nairobi pipeline – referred to as Line 1 – has been transporting refined petroleum products from the Port city to Nairobi where a further push to the hinterland happens.
Taking the pipeline out of use, which has helped open up Kenya and boosted industrialisation – is no small feat.
The Kenya Pipeline Company (KPC) is currently clearing petroleum products from the pipeline, which is holding 25 million litres of diesel.
This is expected to be completed within a month. After that, the pipeline company said it would dig up the 14-inch pipeline and dispose it off as scrap metal.
“We stopped using Line 1 in December last year… the line has served the country well,” said KPC operations manager Martin Wanyama.
“A typical pipeline has a design life of about 25 years but we have been able to continue operating it because of good maintenance. We now have a new pipeline that was commissioned in 2018 and this has given us an opportunity to decommission to the old line.”
“We are now at the tail end of the decommissioning process. Once the products are out of the line, we will go ahead and recover the pipeline,” further explained Wanyama.
The pipeline has been replaced by the new pipeline, Line Five, as the main mode of transportation of petroleum products between Mombasa and Nairobi. Line Five was commissioned in 2018 and the two pipelines were used to complement each other, but running the old pipeline is proving too tasking.
The old line was the first pipeline for the country and has been in operation since 1978.
It had a capacity to pump over 880,000 litres per hour but rarely achieved this, especially in its last years of operation, due to dilapidation.
The new pipeline has a capacity to move one million litres of products per hour.
Line One and Five were, coincidentally, constructed by the same company, Zakhem International.
The Lebanese firm started construction of the first pipeline in 1976 and completed it in 1978, with a design life of 25 years.
The company would in 2014, 36 years after handing over Line One to KPC, embark on construction of Line Five that has now replaced Line One as the key mode of transportation of petroleum products between Mombasa and Nairobi.
Line One has ensured a steady flow of petroleum products to Nairobi and further upcountry as well as neighbouring countries.
It has also been cost-effective and moved petroleum products at a much higher speed when compared to road transport.
However, not without a share of major lows and controversies including KPC having to make heavy investments to maintain and run it.
It has also kept the industry and consumers on edge due to numerous downtimes that sometimes led to fuel shortages and across major towns.
The line has also had a number of leaks that have had disastrous effects on the environment and human health, with one of the instances having resulted in a fatal fire incident at Mukuru Sinai in Nairobi’s industrial area.
The process of decommissioning the old pipeline has been at a slow pace owing to lack of water to use in flushing out petroleum products still in the line.
It took months to collect an initial 15 million litres of water that was used to push out 15 million litres of jet fuel from the pipeline. KPC now needs another 25 million litres of water to push the 25 million litres of diesel from the pipeline.
“We would collect water into some of the storage tanks at KPRL (Kenya Petroleum Refineries) and once we had gotten a substantial amount, we would pump it into the pipeline to push out the petroleum products,” said Wanyama.
“So far we have displaced 15 million litres of Jet A 1 and are having a balance of 25 million litres of diesel in the pipeline.”
Wanyama said KPC has been working with the coastal water agencies, which will pump water directly to the pipeline and this is expected to speed up the process of recovering the 25 million litres of diesel from the pipeline.
This is while balancing the needs of the residents of coastal towns who rely on the water for household use.
Wanyama said sea water, while in plenty, could not be used because it could damage the pumps, which are still in good shape and KPC plans to use them in future.
The water being used push out petroleum products from the pipeline will be treated and released to the environment.
“We will run the water through an interceptor that will trap the petroleum that will have been left in the water. The water will also go through other processes to make it safe for discharge. We will also have to get approvals from environmental authorities,” said Wanyama.
Not all the old pipeline – with a total length of 450km – will be disposed as scrap. While 279km of it will be recovered and sold as scrap, the first 171km will be taken over by Mombasa Water Company for use in supply of water to the coastal from Mzima Springs.
The pipeline currently used by the company is prone to disruptions as wild animals dig it up in search of drinking water. The petroleum pipeline is buried two metres into the ground, which makes it difficult for animals and human vandals to dig up.
When done with decommissioning of Line 1, the company plans to upgrade Line 5, increasing its capacity to being able to move 1.8 million litres of fuel per hour. This is up from the current one million litres per hour.
This will be through installation of additional booster pumps along the pipeline. The pipeline is currently equipped with five pumping stations, with plans to have another four pumping stations between Mombasa and Nairobi.
“The pipeline has provisions to be upgraded to pump 1.8 million litres per hour by installing additional pumps at Samburu, Manyani, Makindu and Konza. This will be phase two of the project and will help us keep up with demand in the country and the region,” said Wanyama.
This, he noted, will enable the company to keep up with demand for petroleum products that has been growing and is now almost outstripping the capacity of Line 5.
While the pipeline can transport one million litres of fuel products per hour, demand currently stands at 900 000 litres per hour. This could mean that in another year, the pipeline might not be able to cope with demand.
“We are investing with considerations of the demand for petroleum products in the country and the region for years to come. Today, the demand is 900 million litres per hour, which means we are almost exhausting the capacity for Line 5, which is one million litres per hour,” said Wanyama.
He added that the installation of the new pumps is expected to be completed in the financial year to June 2023. The pipeline company expects the flow rates of 1.8 million litres per hour on Line 5 to last the country another 10 years before this capacity is outstripped.
The pipeline company is also mulling construction of another pipeline along the route that Line 1 takes.
While still at the preliminary stages, Wanyama said the planned 20-inch pipeline would have a capacity to transport two million litres of petroleum products per hour.
It will also be a multiproduct pipeline, transporting diesel, super petrol and dual-purpose kerosene.
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