Embakasi fire tragedy: The deadly cost of an inept system

Embakasi Gas Explosion

View of what remained after a huge gas blast in Embakasi Nairobi caused loss of lives, property and injuries on February 2, 2024. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The gas storage and refilling plant that exploded at Mradi Village in Embakasi had unsuccessfully applied for permits three times from Epra.
  • Those living in nearby buildings had constantly complained to Nema over the presence of such a potentially explosive facility at a highly populated residential area.

For four months between March and July 2023, the gas storage and refilling plant that exploded at Mradi Village in Embakasi Thursday night, had unsuccessfully applied for permits three times from the Energy and Petroleum Authority (Epra).

But even long before that, those living in nearby buildings had constantly complained to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) over the presence of such a potentially explosive facility at a highly populated residential area.

Sadly, they say their complaints were never acted upon.

Even more puzzling, is that twice-in March 2020 and January 2021, the plant that was illegally constructed at the said location was demolished by Epra and the operators charged in court.

This was according to a joint statement by Energy and Interior Cabinet Secretaries Davis Chirchir and Prof Kithure Kindiki, respectively, which, like the two agencies, listed all the illegalities that had been committed by the gas plant, but with a broken system—do not take blame for failure to enforce and stop the illegal construction.

For the three that died and the 300 in various hospital being treated with burn injuries, the failure by an inept system to protect them from such unscrupulous deals is still too fresh to bear.

Photo credit: | Nation Media Group

In yet another case of a broken system, Petroleum Institute of East Africa, the industry lobby group, said they had flagged the illegal operations of the gas plant—whose directors got away with fines and had their impounded tankers released, one of which exploded in the Thursday midnight incident.

In their statement, Mr Chirchir and Prof Kindiki said the big blast—and the subsequent ball of fire that terrorised the residents—occurred because “the refilling of LPG cylinders was done using direct manifold connections to the LPG tanker increasing the risk of leakage and explosion.”

“Epra works with different enforcement agencies to undertake surveillance and enforcement especially in the petroleum and LPG sectors. More than 10 illegal sites have been demolished in the recent past,” the two ministers said.

Embakasi explosions cause deaths and injuries

In an order when he visited the victims in different hospitals, Deputy President (DP) Rigathi Gachagua ordered a crackdown on the illegal gas.

He suggested that the problem was further exacerbated by drivers, including those of government vehicles, illegally selling fuel in dangerous zones.

"Sometimes our drivers come to these garages to sell. The drivers are paid Sh1, 000 yet the garages take fuel worth Sh10,000. That driver came here to dump gas illegally. Now see the pain and destruction it has caused. Let us be responsible and stop shortcuts in life because they cannot work," Mr Gachagua stated.

By the time of publication, Nema had not responded to queries posed by the Nation regarding the accusations brought by residents against it.

Embakasi Gas Explosion

Ben Malasi, a victim of the explosion at Mradi Village in Embakasi, Nairobi.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

On its part, Epra, through a statement, detailed why it rejected the requests for construction permits made by the proprietor of the gas refilling facility, every single time an application was filed.

“Application for construction permits for an LPG storage and filling plant at the site was received by Epra on March 19, June 20 and July 31, 2023. All applications were rejected as they did not meet the set criteria,” Epra said.

The agency explained that the main reason for the rejection was failure of the designs to meet the safety distances stipulated in the Kenya Standard.

“Epra noted the high population density around the proposed site and the applicant was requested to submit a Qualitative Risk Assessment clearly indicating the radiation blast profiles in the unfortunate case of an explosion like the one that happened yesterday,” Epra said.

Still, the facility continued with its operations anyway, and sadly, three people are now dead and over 280 injured following the explosion of this same entity that was denied permission to operate in the area.

Embakasi Gas Explosion

A resident of one of the affected plots checks the extent of damage at his house after a gas explosion at Mradi Village in Embakasi on February 2, 2024. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

In its regulatory measures to curb the vice of operating illegal gas storage and refilling stations in the country, Epra published on local dailies that between March and June 2023, after conducting random surveillance in Nairobi and Kajiado, it flagged ten entities for failing to comply with its set standards and regulations.

One such facility was located off the North Airport Road, Embakasi, just within the same area where the explosion occurred Thursday night. This facility was found to be refilling LPG cylinders of other brands without authority from the brand owners contrary to the law.

Surprisingly, the facility received a slap on the wrist with Epra suspending its operations for a single month and allowed it to be reopened after serving the suspension period.

The aftermath of a huge gas blast in Embakasi Nairobi last night.

The aftermath of a huge gas blast in Embakasi Nairobi last night.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

A few months later, within the same area, the unfortunate happened. So tragic was the explosion that it drew the attention of the former Epra boss, Pavel Oimeke, who expressed his anger at laxity by the police in enforcing the Authority’s decision to ensure the plant never operated.

“The LPG plant was closed down by Epra and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI). Why was it still operational in a residential area?” he posed on his X timeline.

Weighing on the matter, the Petroleum Institute of East Africa (Piea), revealed that it is this very site where a criminal case was instituted against the proprietor of the facility on November 9, 2020. All the accused persons in the matter were found guilty and convicted with a sentence issued on May 18, 2021.

Ms Wanjiru Manyara-the General Manager of Piea, said guidance by the High Court gives a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison or a penalty of Sh10 million but at the magistrate’s court, the accused in this case got away with a fine of “Sh500,000 or a one-year imprisonment instead of Sh20million or five years for the proprietor and a fine of Sh50,000 for the second accused instead of a fine of Sh10 million or five years.

The institute further faults the release of all motor vehicles including two LPG tankers together with the confiscated LPG bulk despite the law providing for mandatory forfeiture.

The Thursday incident comes months after the Internal Security and National Administration Principal Secretary, Dr Raymond Omollo, in March 2023 launched the nationwide LPG and petroleum business registration drive.

This exercise, which aimed at enhancing the management and regulation of the LPG and petroleum business was set to commence on April 3 until April 14, 2023 and was to be conducted in all sub-counties by the National Government Administration officers in collaboration with Epra.

The aftermath of a huge gas blast in Embakasi Nairobi last night.

The aftermath of a huge gas blast in Embakasi, Nairobi, on Thursday night. Nema has suspended 4 officers over the licensing of Maxxis Nairobi Energy

Photo credit: File| Nation Media Group

It involved collection of data and information from all players in the business which were to help ensure all the operators were compliant with safety regulations to minimise risk of accidents and protecting the public.

When asked about the drive, the Interior Ministry confirmed that the LPG and petroleum businesses were registered and added that a comprehensive statement on the same would be issued.

On its part, the Nairobi City County, also in the spotlight, through its Chief Officer, Disaster Management and Coordination, Bramwell Simiyu denied having knowledge of the operations of the exploded gas filling facility.