The proliferation of petrol and gas filling stations across the country has raised safety concerns amidst the less than satisfactory compliance with minimum environmental safety requirement in the operations of these facilities.
Available statistics indicate that between 2014 and 2017, Ghana has witnessed eight major gas explosions – the Kwame Nkrumah Circle (3rd June 2015), Nungua-Zongo gas explosion (18th July 2014), Trade Fair Explosion (23rd December 2016) to mention but a few. There is therefore the urgent need for a long-lasting solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem that poses serious threat to human life, property and natural environment.
Whilst there already exist, in our view, a sufficient regulatory framework (The Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1994, Environmental Assessment (Amendment) Regulations 2002, National Petroleum Act, 2005, Spatial and Land Use Act 2016 amongst others), the lack of proper coordination and enforcement of laws by the relevant sector agencies has contributed to the recurrence of the problem.
As a point of departure, we take due-cognisance of the fact that there is some willingness on the part of government to arrest this growing menace (evidenced by the remedial strategies put forward by the government in the wake of the most recent gas explosion at Atomic Junction).
Further to that, we first and foremost highlight the urgent need for an in-depth environmental impact assessment (EIA) of pre-existing and new developments (including proposed ones) to ensure that they are in conformity with the stipulated laws.
Operationalising this recommendation requires a cross-sectoral approach in which sense the lead government agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should work in liaison with other relevant bodies like the National Petroleum Authority (NPA), Energy Ministry, Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS), National Development Planning Commission, Town and Country Planning Department (i.e. the Land Use and Spatial Planning Authority) and the District Assemblies to ensure that environmental impact assessments undertaken adequately leverage on the full technical expertise (in terms of rigorous locational audits, mitigation and remedial strategies necessary for the safe operation of petrol and gas filling stations) of officials of these respective bodies.
Within this purview, the strict compliance and enforcement of the statutory regulatory mechanisms (including the revocation of the licenses of operators for non-compliance with statutory legislation and those facilities which fail to meet the stipulated environmental safety standards) remain vital in ensuring proper due-diligence in the siting of petrol and gas filling stations.
Both the EPA and the NPA could also draw on their discretionary powers to create additional by-laws, if necessary, to enable them to effectively deliver on their statutory mandate. Added to this is also the need for a review of punitive measures (including an upward adjustment of the penalty fine) for non-compliance as outlined in Sections 13 (1-4) of the Environmental Protection Act 1994, Act 490 to ensure that they are deterrent enough in complying fully with stipulated environmental safety regulations.
It is also common knowledge that the relevant sector agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, Town and Country Planning Department etc. – are overwhelmed with several challenges (including personnel and logistical constraints) that hamper the effective execution of their duties, particularly in relation to undertaking regular environmental monitoring and auditing.
It, therefore, remains paramount to strengthen the capacity of the respective sector agencies at the district levels (in terms of increased staffing and supply of requisite logistics) to enable them to deliver on their legal mandate. In the case of the Environmental Protection Agency, the establishment of the National Environment Fund (as specified under Section 16 of Act 490) offers a good financing option that the EPA should tap into in procuring some necessary logistics needed for their operations as stated previously.
Moreover, periodic environmental monitoring and auditing of all petrol and gas filling stations by the EPA in conjunction with other relevant remain paramount to ensure that on-site safety measures and devices are functional and fit for purpose.
Recognising the staffing requirements for these technical operations vis-à-vis the existing institutional constraints (some of which have been mentioned already), investment in requisite technological options such as the on-site installation of state of the art tracking and remote data transmission devices could be beneficial in ensuring effective monitoring and collation of real-time data on operations of various petrol and gas filling stations to ensure they are in compliance with stipulated operational guidelines.
Additionally, the EPA could leverage on the technological packages like 3D Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Environmental Monitoring software to quickly detect and/ or predict potential leakages and explosive events occasioned by faulty pipelines and delivery systems via geo-reference data for prompt and appropriate action.
In the case of the operators of these petrol and gas filling stations, the establishment and scheduled maintenance of early detection/ warning systems (including as gas leakage detection, fire alarm systems, automatic overfill protection systems for gasoline storage tanks) and the inspection of pipelines and delivery systems to ensure that they are always functional.
Regular professional/ technical training of the staff at petrol and gas filling station should be mandatory to ensure that they are fully abreast of the health and safety procedures and on-site emergency features to improve on-site safety practice. Further to that, the creation of rapid district response outlets remains pivotal in ensuring the dissemination of information in real time to the relevant authorities for appropriate action in the event of gas leakage and/ or fire outbreak.
Finally, environmental education and sensitization of the general public remain critical in raising the public consciousness with respect to reactionary strategies and health and safety procedures in the event of fire outbreak or gas leakage. The various media platform could also champion this cause by the creation of environmental awareness segment (synonymous to the wide media broadcast on the environmental implications of the galamsey menace) for the dissemination of relevant information on the subject matter.
Whilst the foregoing is by no means exhaustive, we believe that the proactive implementation of these policy prescriptions as part of holistic and coordinated approach (that brings together all the relevant institutional and non-stakeholders) would be far-reaching in effectively addressing the recurring gas explosions in Ghana.