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Beware of bad gas - Recent rains could lead to motorists getting more contaminated fuel

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2016 | 12:00 AMCorey Robinson
According to the inspector, the contamination of ethanol-based fuel, which has a strong affinity for water or moisture, is commonplace in Jamaica, where there exists a “culture” of neglect when it comes on to service station maintenance.
Noel daCosta

Hundreds of motorists could be hit with contaminated fuel over the next few weeks as some service stations across the island flout proper storage practices and ignore recommendations made following last year's 'bad gas' saga that left more than $25 million worth of damage.

In April, the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology released its much-anticipated report into the contamination of gasolene being distributed in the Jamaican petroleum market, after hundreds of motorists took to the media in 2015 with complaints of problems caused by bad gas.

However, after months of investigation and a slew of meetings involving stakeholders, the Petroleum Trade Reform Committee (PTRC), which was appointed by the Government to probe the release of the bad gas, was not able to specifically identify the source of the contaminated fuel.

The committee, nonetheless, made 38 recommendations, 15 for immediate implementation to guard against a recurrence of the contamination.

But a Sunday Gleaner source in the petroleum industry, who for the past 20 years has been intimate with the construction and maintenance of service stations across Jamaica, identified poor storage practices as the main reason for the bad gas and charged that this has been repeatedly ignored by retailers.

"From where I sit, and based on the situations that I have been dealing with, we have seen where storage continues to be an issue. It is something that requires a lot of monitoring and policing from the various stakeholders but many of them don't want to spend the money," charged the source, whose company has done work for most of the petroleum retailers in Jamaica.

"The people who are on that committee are stakeholders in the industry. They are going to make suggestions that protect their business. They are not going to make decisions that are going to cause them to spend to ensure a good product to the consumer," he added.

The petroleum industry veteran further charged that many of the regulatory bodies, such as the Bureau of Standards and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), do not have the resources nor technology to properly test the quality and operations of the stations.

According to the veteran, the contamination of ethanol-based fuel, which has a strong affinity for water or moisture, is commonplace in Jamaica, where there exists a 'culture' of neglect when it comes to service station maintenance.

He said because storage tanks are improperly secured, both at the distribution outlets and the service stations, water, especially during heavy rainfall, easily seeps into the tanks, contaminating the fuel.


Service stations in 'disarray'


Noel daCosta, chairman of the PTRC, described the maintenance mechanisms at service stations islandwide as being in 'disarray', but rejected this as the cause of the contaminated fuel.

"If it was a storage issue, it wouldn't have been concentrated in the short time that the bad gas incident took place and it wouldn't have been widespread over the island," daCosta told The Sunday Gleaner.

"The investigation spoke to a shipment that contained some bad gas coming into the country and being distributed, working its way through the country, and then the problem went away and hasn't returned. If it was a storage problem, it would have been more intermittent, it would have been over a longer period. The evidence just doesn't match that diagnosis," added daCosta.

But that argument has been rejected by our source, who claimed that unless the impact is as widespread as it was last year, motorists are usually left thinking the problem is with their vehicles and not with the fuel.

"We canvass all of the companies in the industry and all of them at times have breaches, and it goes back to cost," said the source.

"A man might say that during the summertime he does not have any rain so he doesn't have any problem. That lapse creates a mindset of comfort. So the consumer buys the bad gas in the morning but his injector doesn't fold until in the evening or the next day. There is no way that he can go back to the gas station and tell them that it's because of the bad gas."

He continued, "Nobody is taking the time to ensure that the tank hatch is closed or that the tank has the proper ventilation. When we went ethanol, the emphasis was put on storage containers being sealed. All those things have been thrown out the window.

"If you go to the stations now you will see that there are very little standards. This bad gas thing happens all the time, but it is just that the incidents are sporadic. A one-off motorist won't report it, so many times it cannot be plotted or it may not draw any attention," he added, charging that chances of fuel contamination rises whenever there is heavy rain.

It was on December 19 last year that then Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell officially confirmed reports of motorists complaining about the contaminated fuel. Incidentally, this was weeks after heavy rainfall lashed sections of the island, inundating Portland and other parishes.

In October this year, additional bad gas reports resurfaced in St Thomas. This again was after heavy rainfall from the passage of Hurricane Matthew, the source theorised.

Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley has so far declined to respond to questions on the matter, arguing that he recently made a report to Parliament and that there was nothing new with regard to the bad gas issue.