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Pipeline problems

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The leak in the Muthurajawela pipeline that resulted in the waste of an estimated 10 to 15 metric tonnes of oil and resulted in environmental damage of an area that is legally protected is a massive failure by an important State enterprise, and significant steps must be taken to ensure that this issue is addressed.

The leak, which took days to clean up and has racked up significant damages in public money, has not been adequately dealt with by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) or the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL). In fact, there are few details as to how bad the damage is and what steps are being taken to deal with a problem that has been in the pipeline (pun intended) for over a decade.

According to unions of the CPC, a project to lay two new pipelines as part of upgrades to the oil pipeline system between Colombo Port and the CPSTL facility in Kolonnawa, has been in limbo for 12 years.

Petroleum sector unions allege that the delay in awarding the tender to complete the project resulted in the Muthurajawela terminal having to handle far more tankers than was ideal, which contributed to the rupturing of a pipeline and the consequent oil leak last week.

Three of the five oil pipelines running from the Dolphin Pier at Colombo Port to the Kolonnawa storage facility have already been abandoned as they are over 70 years old and in a dilapidated state. 

Currently, there is only one 10-inch diameter pipeline to pump Jet A-1, petrol and diesel from the Port to Kolonnawa. As such, it takes a minimum of seven days to discharge a 40,000 metric tonnes fuel tanker at the Colombo Port.

This has resulted in half the incoming tankers being diverted to Muthurajawela for discharging. According to unions, the number of tankers discharging at the Muthurajawela terminal has risen sharply during the past several years. The terminal handled 46 tankers in 2016, which nearly doubled to 88 in 2017. So far this year, 60 tankers have discharged at Muthurajawela.

The pipeline being in constant use means essential maintenance often gets delayed because repairs would mean pumping needs to be suspended. In fact, the problem of the pipeline was included in a report that was compiled by the Government after the massive fuel shortage last year when the CPC was caught napping on its fuel supply and the entire country had to face hardship. The Ministerial Committee at the time, which was headed by Special Assignments Minister Sarath Amunugama, noted the shortcomings of the Muthurajawela terminal and recommended that these issues be addressed immediately. But, a year later, it would appear that little has been done.

Understandably, there are concerns of transparency and accountability in calling for large tenders. A project to lay two 18-inch pipelines between Colombo Port and Kolonnawa was launched in 2006. The previous Government, however, chose to go for unsolicited proposals, rather than an open tender process. Seven unsolicited proposals were evaluated, but the tender was never awarded. Unions had also raised questions over why the current Government had not chosen to call for open tenders.

The repeated delays have now created a dire situation and the danger is that this leak will also be swept under the carpet and left unaddressed until the next disaster. Perhaps it is time Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga stops attempting to solve cricket problems and focused on problems under his Ministry instead.  

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