EXPLAINER: What are the Dangers Posed by Petrol Stations in Residential Areas?

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In January 2021, a fire erupted at the Castle Petrol Station at West Field (Photo taken from The Point Newspaper)

By Malick Nyang

Petrol stations are busy places with lots of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. They also store and dispense large amounts of hazardous substances, especially flammable substances such as petrol, diesel and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

The siting of fuel stations in residential areas in cities is, perhaps, due to high population growth, urbanization, and the accompanying increase in the number of vehicles which increases the demand for petroleum products, according to an academic paper with research focus on Ghana published by the National Library of Medicine in April 2024.

Although fuel stations provide petroleum products that stimulate and drive socio-economic growth and development in contemporary societies, their presence in residential areas is a source of fire risks to inhabitants and their properties.

Studies on the siting of fuel stations in residential areas and the related disaster risk are often viewed from the viewpoint of the health and safety of fuel attendants, spatial distribution and vulnerability of residents, land use planning responses, and the degree of compliance with planning and safety standards and regulations with little attention on residents’ perceptions.

In The Gambia, many filling stations provide convenience stores, supermarket, mini markets, exchange bureaus, discount stores and many more. Some of these filling stations with these extra businesses sell confections, lottery tickets, soft drinks, snacks, coffee, magazines, milk and other grocery items. These food products attract lots of customers within the vicinity of petrol station.  That’s why it’s very important to have good systems and processes in place for making sure people stay healthy and safe.

The fire risks are associated with the storage of large quantities of hazardous materials, mainly petrol, and diesel, that emit flammable vapours . The vapours emitted can form an inflammable mixture in the air that can detonate when in contact with fire, heat, or light, according to a research by three Ghanaian academics.

LAWS / REGULATIONS

In the Gambia, the Petroleum Products Act no. 12 of 2016, which consist of 36 articles, divided into 12 parts, provides for the following:

The supervision and monitoring of the importation, exportation, transportation, processing, supply, storage, distribution and marketing of petroleum products; licensing and control of activities and installations in petroleum products, in order to ensure appropriate health, safety and environment standards; encouragement and protection of fair competition in the petroleum products supply market.

PART 7 of the Petroleum Service Station Regulations 2017 provides for Fire Safety Requirements for Petroleum Service Stations as follows:

“62. Siting of Petroleum Service Station
“(1) Any site chosen shall be sufficiently spacious for it to be designed to minimize the risks of any unauthorized person to be at or near the filling stations. (i.e., it be sited away from
normal human traffics and isolated from other buildings’ entrances and exits).
“(2) Petroleum service stations shall be sited away from places of public assembly, residential buildings and where there is large number of people, such as town centres, neighbourhood centres, important buildings and key installations.”

The later, relating to residential buildings, is not properly enforced.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

One source of fire disaster risks is fuel stations located in residential areas. Risk associated with petrol station in The Gambia is mostly fire incident. Fuel stations are potential sources of fire outbreaks because several fire incidents have been reported at fuel stations in The Gambia over the past years.

In 2012, an inferno ravaged the then Elton Brikama fuel filling station. The fire was reportedly caused by a fuel tanker explosion, spreading to a neighbouring compound, Sillah Kunda. Eight business establishments around the compound were also affected. The shops were burnt to ashes (The Daily Observer Newspaper reported).

In January 2021, a fire erupted at the Castle Petrol Station at West Field. The station is situated in one of the most busy areas in the Kanifing Municipality, near the Standard Chartered Bank and not far from the Masjid Bilal Boarding School.

According to a report by The Point newspaper, the cause of the fire, which cost the filling station more than half a million dalasi, was as a result of the fuel psitol falling off a taxi fuel tank resulting in a spark that started the fire.

POSSIBILITY OF GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION

Apart from fire incidents, petrol stations can cause groundwater contamination.

“The underground storage tanks of the stations can corrode over time leaking their contents into the groundwater. These products (petrol and diesel) contain harmful chemicals such as benzene which are known to cause cancer, and harm reproductive and nervous systems, as well as children,” according to Gambian Soil Scientist, Katim S. Touray.

“These chemicals are so dangerous that heath guidelines for their acceptable levels in groundwater range from zero (for benzene and four others) to 10 parts per million for the xylenes. Put another way, one tablespoon of petrol or diesel can contaminate about 100 thousand litres of groundwater, or a 100m x 100m and 10 m deep swimming pool,” Touray wrote in an opinion piece: A Fool’s Thirst in the Making published in September 2021.

Despite these risks, one of the most populous regions, the Greater Banjul Area (GBA) of the Gambia, is full of petrol stations, with more being built, and some of them around NAWEC well fields which supply water to hundreds of thousands of residents, Touray observed.

He recommended a review of the increasing number of petrol stations in the GBA, the way the storage tanks are installed, and the nature of the tanks themselves. “New storage tanks installations should meet high environmental standards such as those from the US Environmental Protection Agency, and existing storage tanks should either conform to these standards – or be replaced. Failure to take such measures could increase present problems with our water supply, and in the long term, increase the risk of ours becoming a nation of fools: with abundant water, but thirsty because of groundwater contamination.”

According to the article published by the National Library of Medicine, repeated high exposure to gasoline, whether in liquid or vapor form, can cause lung, brain and kidney damage. When vehicles use gasoline and diesel fuels, it contributes to harmful pollutants like carbon monoxide and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – both of which create smog, aggravate people with respiratory issues, and spur climate change itself.

Other harmful pollutants may float on the surface of water and may travel long distances, eventually causing danger away from the place where it escaped. Petrol vapour does not disperse easily and may also travel long distances. Significantly, a study found evidence of an increased risk of childhood cancer (all diagnosis combined) among children living in close vicinity of petrol stations.

GOVERNMENT’S EFFORTS IN MITIGATING THE RISK

While the Gambia government is not seen to be doing much in avoiding the establishment of fuel service stations in residential areas due to a lack of enforcement of its regulations, it has been doing some capacity building and awareness creation related to fire safety.

The country’s Utilities Regulator, PURA, in collaboration with the Gambia Fire and Rescue Service, trained 70 fuel pump attendants, fuel station owners and managers on fire safety awareness and operational standards. The training was held in January 2023 with participants drawn from four regions: Central River, Upper River, Lower River, and North Bank regions.

50-METER DISTANCE FROM RESIDENCES

Musa Mbowe, a Medical Doctor at Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, urged the government to continue training individuals within the petrol industry and provide sufficient equipment to boost safety for both lives and properties.

Dr. Mbowe, advocates for the reduction and scrutiny of petrol stations in The Gambia, especially those operating illegally or without due process.

“The distance between a petrol station and residential areas should be at least 50 meters,” he told FactCheck Gambia in an interview. “This will help in curbing high risks and potential disaster associated with petrol stations such as fire, water contamination, lung, brain and kidney damage and childhood cancer.”

SOPs

The Gambia’s Petroleum Products Storage Facility Regulations 2017, provided the following guidelines or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs):
(1) Terminal operators shall implement and have documented operations and maintenance plans which assure conformance with applicable safety and operational standards, in compliance with applicable pollution regulations and shall use safe work practices and procedures including:
(a) Understanding petroleum products and their properties.
(b) Ensuring good ventilation by working in open atmospheres
(c) Working at ambient temperatures.
(d) Providing information, instruction and training to all terminal operatives.
(e) Reporting of all incidents e.g. leaks and providing clean-up and disposal facilities.
(f) Providing secondary containment solutions such as bunding or oversize drums.
(g) Taking special precautions when loading or unloading vehicles.
(h) Developing a succinct Emerge

Other Safety Guidelines found elsewhere

  1. Keep all sources of ignition, such as cigarette lighters and matches, away from petrol or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) as these can ignite petrol or LPG fumes.
  2. Smoking or the use of a cigarette lighter or matches while on the forecourt of a petrol station is not permitted.
  3. Electronic equipment such as cell phones are not to be used near flammable liquids.
  4. Follow the instructions that are listed on the petrol station forecourt and turn off the vehicle engine before refueling.
  5. Use only approved petrol containers. When transporting containers, be sure they are secured in the vehicle. Fill containers to no more than 95 percent of the container to allow room for thermal expansion.
  6. When filling a petrol container, ensure that it is placed on the ground (earthed). This prevents static discharge which causes vapour fires.
  7. If you do spill petrol on your clothes while a vehicle is being refueled change your clothing as soon as practicable.
  8. Every worker handling a hazardous substance is required to be adequately trained in the safe use and handling of the substance.
  9. Train workers in the emergency response procedures for the site. This includes showing workers the locations of the fire extinguishers and emergency stop buttons.
  10. Always ask workers for input on identifying health and safety risks, and when choosing solutions. People are more likely to take responsibility and make good choices if they’ve been involved in the conversation. Workers are the eyes and ears of your business. They could suggest practical, cost-effective solutions.

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  • Additional Research by Modou S. Joof
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