Survey of liquid gas plants results in a grim report

An explosion at a small restaurant in Alajuela last month and subsequent news reports show that anything less than a pristine liquid petroleum gas container is a time bomb. Now regulators are pointing a finger at the firms that put the gas in those containers.

Regulators initiated inspections of 14 commercial gas
operations and found that all were less than adequate, they reported Monday.

The top plant, operated by Petrogás, received a so-so score of 71 percent, according to the report from the Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos. A Gas Nacional Zeta plant received 67 percent, while a Tomza plant got 52 percent and a Solgas operation earned just 50 percent, it said.

The agency said investigators found a litany of deficiencies. The inspections were done by personnel from the Escuela de Ingeniería Química of the Universidad de Costa Rica. The grading was based on Central American and international standards, the agency said.

Any score under 80 percent is not considered acceptable, said the agency.

A universal failing was one of security, according to the summary released Monday. And it said there were persons performing sensitive work who were not certified to do so.

“These results confirm that from the filling of cylinders we have a big problem,” said Juan Manuel Quesada of the agency’s energy section. “The lack of adequate security measures puts in danger the lives of hundreds of persons who work in these plants and in the vicinity. These companies have the responsibility to offer a quality and very secure public service that begins at their installations.” He was quoted in the summary.

The Autoridad Reguladora said that the firms have five days to present a plan to correct the deficiencies.

Among other findings were that the bulk of the firms do not have sensors to detect gas leaks. Such devices would include alarms and warning lights. The inspectors also found metal pieces on the floor that could produce sparks. In addition, there were no systems to detect the residue that remains in cylinders at the point where they are filled. There is a possibility of water or some other contaminant there.

There also was a general failing to keep adequate records, said the agency.

The Autoridad Reguladora said that the firms should make more of an effort to provide information to the end consumer because this is where the bulk of the mishaps take place. And the firms should locate their plants well away from, neighbors, the agency said.

Three persons have died from the Jan. 21 explosion in Barrio El Carmen, Alajuela. Others, including a child, remain hospitalized from burns. Fire fighters blamed the explosion and fire on a ruptured gas tank. Judicial agents later detained the gas supplier and said that he had in his possession tanks with dents and rust.

Liquid petroleum gas is used widely as a cooking fuel in both homes and restaurants. Costa Rica does not have gas lines in the streets.

Expats have also been warned that the best connectors for the tanks are the screw varieties.

There also are snap-on connections, but these are less secure and have to be checked closely, fire fighters have said.

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