Cairo, May 2016, (Aswat Masrya):
The residents started fleeing towards the nearest exit to save their lives as soon as they heard the sound of explosions in warehouses storing gas bottles in residential areas. It was not a fire drill. It was a real evacuation,it has happened many times before in Egyptian villages and towns.
In the absence of laws that would dictate otherwise, gas bottles in Egypt are being stored in warehouses located in residential areas. Safety regulations are lax or poorly enforced both on these warehouses and on vehicles that carry gas bottles. No one is quite sure which authority should be in charge of this issue: The Ministry of Petroleum, the Ministry of Supplies, or the Ministry of the Interior.
Faten Ali, a housewife in her thirties, is still traumatized by what happened to her 15 years ago. “We had a horrific night, it was a nightmare. We saw the gas bottle flying in the air and then exploding”. The incident took place when a warehouse storing gas cylinders in the Shubra Al Khaima district exploded, in the northern region of Greater Cairo in late 2000.
The incident is neither new nor unique. Around 7,000 warehouses holding gas cylinders operate in residential areas across the country, posing a grave risk to lives. Local authorities in neighbourhoods are helpless to enforce the already lax safety regulations, as this investigation has revealed.
Faten cannot forget the panic she and the residents of Al-Sad Al-Ali and surrounding streets lived that night. The blaze started when gas cylinders mounted on a motorcycle outside a private storage facility caught fire. The fire then spread to oil containers outside a shop in a marketplace near the facility.
A similar incident happened again with Um Mohammad, wife of Sami Gouda, owner of a gas cylinder storage facility in the village of Mit Yazid in Al-Sharqia Province, when a vehicle loaded with gas bottled exploded outside the facility in late October 2015.
She said: “We woke up with the vehicle ablaze. By the time the firefighters came, 20 gas bottles had exploded. Thank god we woke up before the explosion, or we would have been killed.”
The residents of nearby buildings fled their homes and the area until the fire trucks arrived. But the successive explosions of the gas bottles damaged walls. The residents did not apply to get compensation. According to residents, there is no culture of seeking compensation among the population.
Forty-year old decree
The decree regulating the establishment of gas bottle storage facilities and shops was issued on 28 February 1973. Occupying six pages, it is numbered 70/1973. It was signed by then Housing Minister Abdelaziz Kamal.
The decree specified the required height of the ceiling at four meters. It requires building an outside fence two meters from the building. It prohibits parking gas transport vehicles and storing cylinders outside the premises. However, the decree does not prohibit locating the facilities in residential areas. It only requires leaving a distance of 15-20 meters between the facility and enclosed gathering areas such as cinemas and hospitals. It also requires not placing the facilities near flame sources such as industrial workshops and restaurants, without specifying any safe distance.
Even then, our field visit of five facilities in Cairo, Giza, and Qalyubia revealed most of the specifications are not adhered to, as per the following table.
|Al-Wihda||Al-Wihda Street, Shubra Al Khaima, Qalyubia Province – An area covered by the natural gas grid||No additional fence Cylinders stored in cars parked outside Restaurants and plumbing workshop within 15 m radius Marketplace 10 meters away|
|Orabi Street||Ahmed Orabi Street, Shubra Al Khaima, Qalyubia Province – Covered by natural gas grid||No additional fence Cylinders stored in cars parked outside Facility located between two residential buildings|
|Ahmed Hilmi||Ahmed Hilmi Street – Cairo province – covered by natural gas grid||No additional fence Residential area|
|Al-Salam||A;Salam Street, off Sudan Street, Kit Kat district, Giza Province. Covered by natural gas grid||No additional fence Cylinders stored outside Plumbing workshops within 10 meter radius|
|Bijam||Bijam area – Shubra Al Khaima – Qalybia province – covered by natural gas grid||No additional fence Cylinders stored outside|
According to workers at the facilities, keeping cylinders in vehicles outside reduces the effort in loading them to distributors.
In all five facilities, the workers in charge of loading and unloading were seen throwing the cylinders from the top of the truck to the ground by this reporter. No forklifts were used to move the cylinders in any of the facilities, which could explain how the bottles may come to explode, according to Gen. Hani Rifaat, explosives expert at the Interior Ministry.
Rifaat stressed the seriousness of having the gas depots located in residential areas. The explosion of a single cylinder, he said, can inflict total destruction in a 10-meter radius.
|Procedures for establishing a gas storage facility according to e-government portal|
|Applicants go to the respective province office at the Petroleum Gas Company in Cairo The company collects applications from 7/1 until 30/6 of the following year The company sends applications to the Ministry of Local Development in Cairo, which sends them to the respective province’s office The province sends the applications to the Department of Supplies, which forms a committee to study the applications before returning them to the province where areas were selected for the establishment of facilities there.Applicants who satisfy the requirements and whose applications are approved by the committee are notified The Petroleum Gas Company inspects the facility site The company in Cairo gives its approval to the Department of Supplies if the facility passesThe applicants submit all documents to obtain a registration and begin operations|
Procedures for obtaining a license for a gas bottle warehouse published on the site of e-government include the need to secure inspection of the site by the Petroleum Gas Company (PETROGAS). Provinces or local authorities have the power to approve or reject. PETROGAS reports to the General Petroleum Company, the entity responsible for distributing gas bottles to all gas facilities in the country and pumping gas to gas bottling plants.
Over the past three months, Engineer Adel al-Shuwaikh, chairman of PETROGAS, declined to respond to requests for comment. The operational manager of the General Petroleum Company, Engineer Amr Mustafa, also declined to respond to questions posed by this reporter.
But in previous remarks to Al-Watan newspaper of Egypt in August 2014, Shuwaikh said PETROGAS had notified private sector facilities of safety regulations, but claimed they had failed to adhere to them, blaming local authorities in provinces, especially branches of the Supplies Department, for the problem.
Shuwaikh said government facilities adhered to safety standards, including transporting cylinders by vertically loading them in boxes, reducing risks while handling them, as he said. The PETROGAS chairman claimed newly established facilities in new cities were being built away from residential areas, based on a ministerial decree issued in 2002. However, he continued, old facilities cannot be moved at present because the cost would be incurred by consumers according to the distance increase, especially since it is prohibited to transport cylinders using public transport.
Shuwaikh’s remarks, however, are not consistent with the results of our field tour which include the three areas of Greater Cairo, Shubra Al Khaima in Qalyubia, Kit Kat in Giza, and Shubra in Cairo. Our tour found out that the facilities in question were located in areas where natural gas pipes are connected, making the claims about transferring additional costs to consumers because of transport illogical.
According to the latest data available on the website of the Egypt Gas Company, natural gas by the end of 2013 was reaching 3.2 million homes in Greater Cairo, Port Said, Suez, Ismailia, and the Delta provinces as well as Alexandria. The areas were not specified in detail. The website stated that the service is optional.
Government in breach of the law
In 2002, the Egyptian cabinet issued a decree requiring the relocation of all gas storage facilities outside residential areas. However, the decree left it to each province to determine the mechanism of implementation, and did not specify conditions or specific safe distances. According to Decree 313/1980, governors have jurisdictions similar to the Minister of Supplies and Minister of Internal Trade, thus the authority to determine the implementing regulations of any decree involving the supplies sector including gas warehouses.
Hussam Arafat, head of the Division of Petroleum Products at the General Union of Chambers of Commerce, said that the cabinet decree applies only to private sector facilities. Thus, the government-owned Butagasco, which sells to the consumers directly, operates facilities inside residential areas including in Port Said Street in Cairo province, Ain al-Sira, Hilwan, May 15, and Al-Nahda City, as confirmed on the company’s website before it was modified. According to the recorded phone conversation with the call center of Butagasco, it was confirmed that a facility is located in Ain Sira and another one in Port Said Street in the al-Waili district of Cairo province.
Butagasco is one of the companies that deliver gas cylinders from warehouses to the public, selling directly to reduce the load on PETROGAS. It covers specific areas. Similar companies like Cairo Gas do the same.
Arafat from the Chambers of Commerce, which represent the private sector, said that the number of private warehouses in Egypt stands at about 3600 compared to 3350 similar government facility. He said the cabinet decree, meanwhile, does not specify what a residential area is.
|There is no specific legal definition for the term residential area. Two different terms are used for the same meaning in the Unified Building Code: The Urban Bloc, which means a developed area in cities or villages supporting various activities, including open spaces, farmland, and water surfaces; and residential locale, which include residents, public facilities and services such as schools and others.|
In Al-Sharqia province, all gas facilities were moved outside residential areas and villages in 2013-2014, as confirmed by a field visit following the incident of Mit Yazid in the province. In Qaliubiya province, none of the facilities was moved. For its part, the Giza province issued warnings to most facilities, but they were ignored according to the investigations of the author that covered all three provinces.
The author could not gather data on the number of violations and warnings issued by the directorates in various provinces as each province issued such decisions separately. However, to get an example that illustrates the extent of the violations, we contacted the representative of the Ministry of Supplies in Giza province Hafzi Elias.
Elias said that 863 citations were issued in 2015 against gas facilities over issues related to safety standards, prices, and selling in the black market. Seven facilities were closed over safety violations, based on recommendations from Civil Defence.
According to the e-government website, it is the responsibility of PETROGAS represented by the Directorate of Petroleum Gas in every province to inspect the site of the storage facility and ensure compliance with safety standards. However, presidential decree under law No. 62/2014 amending Law 148/1959 concerning Civil Defence requires the approval of Civil Defence for licenses and permits.
The Civil Defence and PETROGAS follows up safety levels at facilities during their operation, while the Ministry of Supplies represented by the Supplies Department in every province handles gas quotas for facilities and violations related to prices and smuggling to the black market seeing as gas is a subsidised commodity. The authority of licensing or revoking/transferring licenses rests with local authorities.
Upon confronting the representative of the Ministry of Supplies in Qaliubiya province, Gamal al-Sayed, regarding the three facilities’ non-compliance with the safety standards in the province, contrary to the decree of the Housing Minister 79/1973, he was surprised to learn about the existence of such a decree.
We then sought out Gen. Magdi al-Shalgami, director of Civil Defence in Giza province, for a comment. Shalgami asked for us to obtain permission from the Public Relations Department of the Interior Ministry.
Despite the ministry’s failure to grant us our request a month after receiving it, a source in Civil Defence who asked not to be named, said the main problem lies with the local authorities that agreed to grant licenses to facilities that did not comply with safety requirements or were located in residential areas. Before the presidential decree 62/2014 amending law 148/1959 on Civil Defence, the latter had no authority to grant licenses to new facilities. The inspections were carried out under the supervision of PETROGAS. However, the decree granted the Interior Ministry represented by Civil Defence the right to approve the construction of new facilities, though this does not apply retrospectively to existing ones.
Dr. Ali Abdelrahman, former governor of Giza, said that his province observed the recommendations of Civil Defence following the explosion of the Ard al-Liwaa facility in 2012 and Al-Barageel in 2014, shutting down four facilities at the time. He added that the province divided the facilities into two categories: ones that are located in areas covered by the natural gas grid, where owners are told their licenses would revoke within six months if their facilities are not moved; and facilities in residential areas not covered by the grid. These are given six months to move or also have their licenses revoked. As for facilities that violate safety standards, they can be fined in addition to the aforementioned procedures.
However, the closure of only seven facilities if anything exposes the slow procedures of the government against violators. At the time of writing, gas bottle facilities are still operating in residential areas despite being ticking time bombs that could at any time cause a new tragedy like that of Faten.
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net