Reversing the time bomb | Sunday Observer

Reversing the time bomb

26 December, 2021
The eight-member Presidential Committee on LP gas-related accidents headed by Prof. Shantha Walpola handing over their report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat last week.
The eight-member Presidential Committee on LP gas-related accidents headed by Prof. Shantha Walpola handing over their report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat last week.

“We knew there was something amiss there,” said Prof. Shantha Walpola, Chairman of the Presidential Committee of Experts appointed to look into the gas cylinder accidents.

He was addressing the media at the Information Department on Tuesday, referring to the sudden spike in gas cylinder-related accidents.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a technical committee on November 30 following countrywide incidents of gas explosions and cylinder leaks, causing fear and anxiety among consumers. The technical committee was tasked with looking into the LPG cylinder fires and explosions, reported at domestic, commercial, and sales outlets in various parts of the country. They were mandated to find the root causes of the problem and come up with solutions to address the issue.

Time bomb

Infuriated masses, already heavily burdened with the Covid 19 economic losses, claimed the domestic gas cylinder has turned into a time bomb. While action was initiated to find the reasons and prevent explosions, the Opposition, led by the JVP and the SJB, looking for shortcuts to come to power, in tandem, blamed the government for the calamity.

Prof. Walpola, at the press conference, confirmed what the people already suspected - the main reason for the explosions was the increase in the concentration of propane in Liquefied Petroleum (LP) gas cylinders distributed by the state-owned Litro Company. The Laughfs company had maintained consistency during the period in question.

However, the committee, comprising technical experts and university academics, stopped short of blaming only the Litro Gas Company for the unfortunate accidents. Prof. Walpola said their investigations lay bare a far greater issue: the lack of overall regulation in the gas supply sector in the country.

The experts visited 17 selected places where accidents occurred, carried out on-sight inspection of Litro and Laughs gas terminals and filling facilities, and studied investigations carried out by 11 institutions.

They held the media briefing to explain their conclusions and recommendations against the backdrop of a major controversy triggered by claims that the composition of Propane and Butane of LP gas has been altered by the companies, causing gas leaks and explosions.

The committee confirmed that the state-owned Litro gas company had been running without any quality checks, internal regulation and safety protocols. The recent gas cylinder accidents claimed seven deaths and more injuries.


The report outlined 25 short, medium and long-term recommendations to address the issue.

Prof. Walpola said, “We summoned representatives of all stakeholders before the committee.

Representatives of the two main gas suppliers, Litro and Laughfs, were summoned before the committee along with a few other players in this sector as well as the laboratories which tested the composition of the LP gas, including the technicians at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation labs where they found the percentage of propane to be higher than the usual in the Litro gas cylinders.

Prof. Walpola said during their investigation, the Sri Lanka Standard Institution (SLSI), the Government Analyst’s Department, Consumer Affairs Authority and several other state institutions made a significant contribution to ensure that the safe gas supply in the country is restored as soon as possible.

“Since we are a technical committee, we analysed the data and concluded as to what could have been the cause for the explosions and fires. The gas cooker unit consists of the cylinder, the LP gas regulator, the rubber horse and the cooker. We did spot inspections of these. Our investigations found that nothing other than the content in the gas cylinder had changed during the period these explosions occurred,” the Chairman said.

The technical committee also agreed that the probability of a gas cylinder exploding is minimal. There has been only one such gas cylinder explosion during the period in question. In most instances, a gas leak caused the explosion or the fire.

There has been an increase in the propane concentration in the LP gas supplied by Litro and the technical committee worked to find how it was so. It was revealed that there is no set specification for the ratio of propane to butane in the LP gas sold in the country.


“Standards are useless if they are not regulated. The companies go by their specifications since there is no regulation,” the Chairman said.

Sri Lanka receives already mixed LP gas, or separately as propane and butane.

The ‘SLS 712’ refers to the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) standards. This SLS 712 does not refer to a specific ratio of propane and butane concentration in the LPG.

The committee also perused the data of gas companies for the past two years. They showed that from time to time, there had been an increase in the percentage of propane in the LP gas supplied by Litro, but this was mostly less than 40%.  

They also checked if explosions can occur due to the change in this composition. A huge number, about 3.5 million Litro gas cylinders are in circulation. But the accidents are in the range of 600, indicating that the composition alone did not cause explosions.

This led them to look into the issues in the regulator and the other accessories of the cylinder and gas cooker. It was clear that substandard parts and regulators contributed, if not aggravated the issue.

During spot inspections, the committee found that this too has not been regulated. Therefore, substandard parts have infiltrated the market. The cylinder contains high-pressure gas. The regulator helps lower the pressure that is supplied to the cooker. If the regulator fails, a gas leak will be inevitable, the committee observed. The absence of the pungent odour in the gas, maintained by mixing Ethyl Mercaptan has also aggravated the problem since the consumers could not detect a gas leak without this smell.

If the accessories had been in conformity with quality controls and the odour-making substance was added to the gas as usual, this issue would not have been this severe, the committee has concluded.

The committee found that Litro failed to maintain sufficient stocks of Ethyl Mercaptan during the period in question.

ISO certification

 A member of the committee, Senior Deputy Director of SLSI Mahagama at the media briefing said the Laugfs gas terminals and the factory has been awarded  ISO 9001 certification and conforms to safety and quality control standards but in contrast, the testing capacity for  gas leaks and quality assurance part was not satisfactory at the Litro facility. “We saw within the factory, they did not have the basic equipment for quality testing,” he said.

Prof. Jayatilleke said there was no issue with the gas cylinders in the market in general, it conforms to a certain standard.

“The closest reason is the composition of the gas; this was the only thing that was altered. The cylinder, the regulator and the hose and cooker, have been used for a long time.”

He said the company which has done the laboratory tests for Litro on the composition of the gas is not an accredited lab. And the samples used to test the LP gas were also outdated.

If you do make a change of this nature in the composition, there are safety measures to be followed.

Prof. Walpola said since there were no proper standards and regulations in this sector, the gas with the altered composition was issued to the market without consulting or informing any regulatory body.  

“In other countries, even in India, there is no set ratio for mixing propane and butane but the companies cannot arbitrarily alter the composition, without consulting the regulatory body,” Prof. Walpola said.

“Currently, we import mixed gas as well as propane and butane separately. Litro has a two-year contract to supply gas. During that period, they have submitted a set of specifications. They are under obligation to supply gas under those specifications,” he said.

The committee handed over their report with 25 recommendations to the President on Monday.


Members of the technical committee:

Prof. Shantha Walpola, Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, Moratuwa University (Chairman); retired Professor W. D. W. Jayathilake (Sri Jayewardenepura University); Prof. Pradeep Jayaweera, Commissioner, Sri Lanka Inventors Commission; Prof. Narayan Sirimuthu, Additional Director General, Technical Services; Dr. Sudharshana Somasiri, Senior Deputy Director, SLSI; Sujeewa Mahagama; Dr. Saliya Jayasekera, Moratuwa University; and Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon. Dr. Saliya Jayasekara of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Moratuwa was also consulted.

The mandate:

To investigate fires and explosions related to LP gas cylinders, find solutions to prevent these accidents and report to the President.

The committee was required to discuss with all stakeholders in this sector and delve into different views and investigations conducted so far on cylinder-related accidents.

A diverse group of academics and experts worked with the committee.


A police investigation and a survey of the gas cylinder-related explosions and fires under Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon revealed that from January 21 to mid-November this year, over 50 LP gas cylinder-related accidents had occurred. Within the first half of December, such accidents shot up to 600, indicating a disturbing increase compared to previous years.

Most of these incidents were of gas cooker explosions and gas leaks. Over 11 institutions including the police, began probing the sudden increase in the number of cases.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a Presidential committee of technical experts to find the root cause and make immediate and long-term recommendations to stop accidents.

Their report with 25 short, medium and long-term recommendations was handed over to the President on December 20.


Key recommendations

  •  Appoint Public Utilities Commission or a state body as the overall regulator
  •  Crucial decisions i.e. changing composition, etc., must be referred for approval by the regulator
  •  The technical committee which oversees gas imports must include a Ceylon Petroleum Corporation expert, SLSI officer, an expert in gas cylinder and cookers, related hardware
  •  This technical committee must decide which type of gas is suitable for Sri Lanka. Emergency gas purchases must also be through the technical committee
  •  According to SLSI standards issued last Friday, propane concentration must not exceed 30% in the LPG available within Sri Lanka. The Committee has endorsed this.
  •  Caps to be replaced in five years, gas tanks to be tested in 10 years after first use and every five years thereafter. There has to be a serial number issued to every cylinder in use to ensure this process is done properly.
  •  Regulators should be replaced once every five years
  •  Quality Checks and regulations are mandatory on the gas cylinder regulators, hose pipes, etc.
  •  Litro must acquire required equipment for pressure testing, etc. Set up own quality control laboratory, operated by the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) or operate under the supervision of the ITI – as assurance that the quality controls of the composition and others conform to standards)
  •  Have a contingency plan to recall a particular batch of cylinders in the market at short notice and restore supply at short notice, during an emergency (Over 3.5 million cylinders in circulation. Litro Company can issue 80,000 cylinders a day. To issue 3.5M, it takes over one month.)
  •  Ensure sufficient stocks of LP gas ‘odour agent’ Ethyl Mercaptan 
  •  The companies must conform to ISO 9001 and ISO 45000 standards
  •  Increase storage tanks at Litro terminals which manage the storage and supply chain. The current four are insufficient. (It was observed that the company did not have the facilities to mix even the Ethyl Mercaptan or to purchase propane and butane separately and mix it domestically.