Experts dismiss explanations for mystery vehicle fires

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The official report on the causes is vague and unreliable, and ignores role of adulterated fuel


The charred metal frame of a car that burnt down due to unknown causes in Hanoi last December. Experts are unhappy with the vague answers provided by the government for the rash of vehicle fires and its silence on fuel adulteration.

Nguyen Phuc Xuyen sold the charred metal frame of his burnt car as scrap for VND1 million (US$48) after it burst into flames last December due to unknown causes while parked at a local garage.

"The paltry amount was just enough to pay for damages to the garage," the 42-year-old man from Lien Quang in Hanoi said.

He reported to local authorities who came to record the case but have not returned since to offer an explanation.

Xuyen, who rejected allegations that someone destroyed his car due to personal animosity, said he had to sell the wreck after keeping it for three months because no one came for further inspection.

He told Vietweek: "I bought it from my friend for VND240 million ($11,500). Now I've lost it without knowing why. I just want the government to take action to prevent similar cases."

His was among 439 vehicles burning for no apparent reason since 2010, and experts have criticized the government for failing to identify the exact cause until now.

Government agencies recently came out with a report but it has been panned for being too simplistic and vague and for completely ignoring what many consider to be the culprit: adulterated fuel.

A study done by several ministries found five reasons for vehicular fires: "electrical short circuit, technical problem, carelessness, collisions with other vehicles on the street, and arson."

This has come under fire from the experts for the long time it has taken and, more importantly, for failing to address the issue of adulterated fuel.

Dinh Ngoc An, dean of the mechanical engineering faculty at the Hung Yen University of Education, said he disagreed with the report's claim that there was no evidence of low-quality fuel in the cases involving bike fires.

He told Vietweek: "I do not believe the [report]. Gasoline is a sensitive commodity in a market dominated by state-owned companies, and it would affect many people.

"When I attended a seminar on gas quality held by the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA) on April 25, some people said we should not talk too much about vehicle fires being caused by [adulterated] gasoline.

"It seemed that they wanted to hide something."

At the time of releasing the report, the authorities said there would be a further investigation which would take a year.

But An said the investigation should not take a year. If the earlier one had been done by independent scientists, it would have been finished earlier and cost only VND300 million ($14,400) instead of the VND7 billion spent by the government, he said.

Hoang Manh Hung, director of VUSTA's Center for Consultancy and Civil Assessment, said the Ministry of Science and Technology cannot claim there is no evidence of low-quality gas causing the fires because it only investigated some of the fires and a few gasoline samples.

"I feel really sad. They have been indifferent to people's concerns."

He too criticized the reluctance to look into gasoline adulteration, but said it is unacceptable to take more time for further investigation.

At a meeting of the National Assembly's Science, Technology and Environment Committee on April 28, many lawmakers criticized the report saying it was not "convincing."

"There is no explanation as to why there has been an increase in vehicle fires," Nguyen Thi Thanh Hai of the Culture, Education, Youth and Children Committee said.

"There should be more details. For instance, the transport ministry should find out if the fires occurred in vehicles that used fuel from a same gas station."

She herself recommends her car driver to be careful when choosing a gas station, she said.

Mysterious "˜technical problem'

The report was released on April 26 in Hanoi at a press conference held jointly by the ministries of Public Security, Science and Technology, Industry and Trade, and Transport.

Major General Tran Anh Dung of the Ministry of Public Security said more than 30 percent of the fires had been caused by short circuits in the electrical system, 15 percent by "technical problems," and 9.8 percent by carelessness.

Colonel Nguyen Van Tuoi, deputy director of the central firefighting department, said in case of technical problems further investigations were not done, adding that Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai had instructed relevant agencies and manufacturers to review their vehicle designs.

As for the short circuits, the security ministry said it could not identify the reason, speculating merely that electrical wires could have been damaged by insects or chemicals.

The ministries said there was no evidence that any of the fires had been caused by adulterated fuel.

Interestingly, another report released at the same time, this one by the Ministry of Science and Technology, said 150 of 704 gasoline samples tested last year had octane and methanol levels that were below required standards.

This year the number was 60 out of 541 samples.

Many reporters wanted to know why the Ministry of Science and Technology had only investigated 16 of the fires.

They also questioned the reliability of the investigation results since 35 percent of the 2010 and 2011 cases and 78 percent of this year's cases remain unsolved.

Dung shrugged it off by saying it was just the "preliminary result" and further investigations would be done.

The transport ministry said the Vietnam Institute of Chemical Industry would study gasoline quality, but added it would take a year to complete.

Dodgy fuel

Local news website VnExpress recently carried out a survey on the cause of the fires, and 85 percent of respondents said it was due to adulterated fuel.

Petrol prices soared nearly 30 percent last year and analysts pointed out it created an incentive for traders to adulterate expensive fuel with cheaper substances. The popular perception is that tanker drivers and gas station owners are guilty of this practice and that this is the real cause of the fires.

Vietnam imports most of its petroleum products since it has only one refinery in the central province of Quang Ngai despite large oil reserves.

Thirteen firms have licenses to import gasoline which is supplied through 13,000 gas stations nationwide.

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