Wed | Mar 20, 2019

Fresh fuel fears - Petrojam employee, mechanics reveal renewed 'bad gas' concerns

Published:Sunday | February 17, 2019 | 12:30 AMCarlene Davis/Gleaner Writer
The Petrojam plant located on Marcus Garvey Drive in Kingston.
Gregory Chung, president of the Jamaica Gasolene Retailers Association
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Despite denials from Petrojam that its supplies are compromised, a source who has intimate knowledge of operational deficiencies at Jamaica’s sole oil refinery has explained the source of the smelly gas, and is warning that it undermines vehicle performance and threatens long-term damage.

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of disciplinary action, said the country could be on the verge of another bad-gas saga.

“On the (Petrojam) compound, it has been making some people nauseous. Some people who have sinus problems, it has been affecting them because we are right in the middle of it,” the employee said.

“It has been affecting the performance of cars. You start to experience your gas mileage suddenly going haywire, using more gas than usual. Your car will feel sluggish,” the employee told The Sunday Gleaner.

“It’s potentially damaging, but computer-controlled cars will protect themselves. Some cars will show ‘check lights’. You will feel it in the performance of the car. Even my car has no power; it’s dumping gas. I went to a mechanic to do some work in January and he recommended that I throw octane booster in the car when filling up,” said the employee.

Major issues with cars

Yesterday, Lisa Bowman Lee, renowned race car driver and auto mechanic, said she, too, was aware of concerns around fuel now on the market.

“Most certainly, there is a problem with the fuel at the moment,” Bowman Lee told The Sunday Gleaner.

“It’s been going on now for quite a little while. Couple of persons have said that shortly after purchasing fuel they have major issues with the car and it just got engine damage. It’s a matter of just proving it and taking it in, but I myself have experienced it with my car as well.”

Last week, however, the Bureau of Standards Jamaica told The Sunday Gleaner that, as a regular practice, it tests all products from Petrojam and has not found any reason for concern.

But the Petrojam source said that the nub of the problem began just over two months ago.

“In December, everyone comes to work one morning and there’s this strong odour, the entire compound had this odour. ... Days went by and the smell was still there, and then people started to ask questions. On the (Petrojam) compound, it has been making some people nauseous. Some people who have sinus problems, it has been affecting them because we are right in the middle of it,” the source added.

The source explained that the catalyst, equipment used in the refining of petroleum, is now malfunctioning, despite being brand new and having only been installed last year.

“The new catalyst is supposed to give you 18 months continuous [service] before you need to regenerate it. That was middle of last year. Bad decisions, inexperience, and a combination of some other factors have caused the catalyst to die prematurely from probably about October ... . We have no choice but to shut down to regenerate,” said the employee.

When The Sunday Gleaner checked with mechanic Audley Wright, who operates out of Portmore, St Catherine, he said clients have been coming to him with issues similar to what the Petrojam employee has been describing, since the start of the year. So far, he has worked on seven such cars.

“You know, it has to do with fuel because you get some codes: air temperature, air sensor, oxygen sensor, some bring on a ‘check engine’ light. The clients that come to me, I have to clean injectors and change gas filters,” said Wright, who has been an auto mechanic for 18 years.

“Cars like the (Suzuki) Baleno Delta and the (Toyota) Yaris, they will vibrate a lot, so every time you buy the gas, you will have to throw octane boosters in it to bring it up. One full tank of gas, one octane booster, which is like $600 for the cheapest one. If the car continues behaving the same way and people continue driving it, it’s going to do damage to your pistons,” said Wright.

Petrojam, in a response, acknowledged that, as a result of an engineering assessment, the current catalyst is about to be changed, as it is at the end of its useful life.

“We wish to highlight that the current condition of the catalyst has not compromised the quality of any product supplied by Petrojam,” said Latoya Pennant, the refinery’s public relations officer, in an emailed response.

Pennant said the organisation had not received any formal complaints from customers with regard to the quality of gasolene supplied or any odour.

“Some imported petroleum products, including gasolene, will from time to time carry a stronger odour than at other times. Most times, this is based on the levels of a component called olefin. There is a maximum olefin content limited by the specification of the Petroleum Quality Control Act of Jamaica,” she said.

“Petrojam is not the only importer of gasolene or other petroleum products. Petrojam is only in a position to comment in respect of its own products supplied to the Jamaican market. Based on the certification process, we do not expect any product supplied by us to cause motorists concern.”

Gregory Chung, president of the Jamaica Gasolene Retailers’ Association (JGRA), said the organisation would not want to speculate or speak without any hard data, but acknowledged that it would investigate further.

“We wouldn’t want to enter into a second phase of a bad-gas saga, and remember now that the bad-gas saga was born out of low octane and gum and tar and all kind of confusion that created problems for the public, almost a panic,” Chung told The Sunday Gleaner.

“It is important that people understand that yes, the damage to vehicles is one part, but you have people who are dependent on their vehicle to do work, there are people that have loans on their vehicles and use it for commercial purposes like taxis and such, so while the damage to the vehicle was one part, they had a domino effect. ... We would never want to go back to those days.”

carlene.davis@gleanerjm.com