Fear of bike fires spreads as government slow to act on exposé

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Experts call for criminal investigation into the lax monitoring of low quality gas, pointing the finger at the Ministry of Industry and Trade and state-owned Petrolimex


Traffic moves along in downtown
Ho Chi Minh City. Motorists are afraid that their vehicle could turn into a firebomb at any time due to low quality gasoline, allegedly responsible for more than a hundred of vehicular fires since early last year, while no official criminal investigation has been launched.

Tuyet Linh bought a fire extinguisher to put in her scooter's under-seat compartment as a precaution in response to the series of mysterious vehicular fires whose causes have yet to be ascertained by relevant governmental agencies.

"I used to refill at gas stations of popular companies to avoid low quality fuel," said the 41-year-old restaurant owner in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. "But it means nothing after popular companies have reportedly sold low quality gas."

Linh bought her scooter two years ago and she said she was afraid that the vehicle that she uses every day could catch fire any time due to low quality fuel - now the prime suspect in the case of more than a hundred cars and motorbikes that have been damaged or destroyed since early last year.

The mysterious fires have spread wide concerns as the motorbike is the most common means of transportation in Vietnam, with a total of more than 32 million registered bikes among a population of approximately 88 million.

Last month, Vietweek published a series of investigation reports unveiling that many unscrupulous tank truck drivers have been siphoning gasoline and replacing it with other liquids while en route from depots to retail stations.

Truck drivers and transport services were witnessed stealing portions of their loads, refilling tanks with fraudulent fuel during quick stops at prearranged locations, Vietweek reporters found.

Many trucks visiting these stops belong to the state-owned Vietnam National Petroleum Group (Petrolimex), Petrolimex's Engineering Company, HP Transportation Service and several other companies.

The allegation was backed by a research conducted by the Ho Chi Minh City Polytechnics University and released on January 13. The research suggested that fires were most likely caused by the adulteration of methanol or ethanol to gasoline.

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Fuel to the fire

Huynh Quyen, who led the research team, said fires would occur when vehicle's fuel tanks sink to five percent of their capacity.

"As the fuel mixed with methanol, a saturated hydrocarbon mixture would form above the fuel surface inside the tank, which ignites upon hitting colder temperatures outside," he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

The Vietweek exposé has since drawn tremendous apprehension among readers, frightened by the mysteriousness of vehicle fires. However, concerned agencies have yet to take adequate action in response to the evidence of low quality gasoline presented by Vietweek.

Duc, a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver at Mien Dong Bus Station in HCMC's Binh Thanh District, said he was really worried as so many cases of motorbike fires remain unsolved.

"I am afraid that my bike would be destroyed one day in similar incident. Although it is not an expensive one, it is my sole meal ticket," he said.

A worker at a Petrolimex gas station on Le Quang Sung Street in HCMC's District 6, who wished to remain anonymous, said many motorists have shifted from A85 to A95 a higher octane gasoline - following rumors that low quality fuel has been found more often in gasoline with lower octane ratings.

Question of culpability

Vuong Thai Dung, deputy general director of Petrolimex, said the company has suspended five workers for siphoning off gasoline and is considering dismissing them.

However, experts said Petrolimex and the Ministry of Industry and Trade should share responsibility and there should be a criminal investigation into gasoline fraud.

Nguyen Manh Hung, chairman of the Vietnam Automobile Transport Association, said it would be lenient, even if Petrolimex dismisses some workers.

"The company should be held accountable for selling low quality gas to consumers because the retail stations are theirs," he said, adding that the buck should stop with the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Vuong Ngoc Tuan, deputy general secretary of the Vietnam Consumers Association, agreed that it would be not enough to merely sack the workers involved.

"In his New Year message, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung stressed that developing market economy must focus on consumers. The wrongdoings (in this case) are clear and there should be stricter measures against violators," he said.

Lawyer Pham Thanh Binh, of the Hanoi-based Hong Ha Law Firm, invoked a government decree stipulating that the Ministry of Industry and Trade is responsible for the management and supervision of retail gas stations.

"The [ministry] should take positive action to review the gasoline trading process, fixing loopholes and taking measures against people involved to prevent gasoline trading fraud," he said.

Pham Van Phat, of the Hanoi Bar Association, said the Penal Code stipulates that information obtained through the media can be used in identifying criminal activity and that police must launch investigations into such cases.

"Vietweek's report has revealed almost all ploys to siphon gas during transportation which could cause serious consequences to the society like motorbike fires. It is a big question why there has been no responsive action from the police," he said.

Tran Hai Duc, of the HCMC Bar Association, said police should have launched an investigation following the reports by Vietweek.

"Exhibits and evidence are available and involved people are identified; there is no reason for the investigator not to launch an investigation. The investigators cannot pass the buck or ignore it," he said.

In a recent incident, a motorbike caught fire while being driven in Binh Thuan Province's Phan Thiet Town on Wednesday (February 1). The driver, identified only as Phuc, managed to escape to safety while the fire was put out by local residents with sand, water and a fire extinguisher.

In another case, police in HCMC's District 9 said on the same day that they are investigating a fire that had destroyed two motorbikes, seriously damaging another.

Tran Anh Tuan, owner of the grocery store on Man Thien Street, said his family was sleeping when he heard an explosion and found a bike ablaze. The fire quickly spread to two other bikes parked in his house.

Tuan and his family escaped through the back door before police and firemen arrived to extinguish the fire.

CITY BACKS INVESTIGATION INTO OIL THEFT, ADULTERATION

Vietweek's reports are enough for police to launch an investigation into gasoline adulteration by sellers, Le Manh Ha, deputy chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee has said.

He was referring to Article 100 of the Penal Code which stipulates that information obtained through the media can be a basis for investigation.

Vietweek had reported last month that several drivers working for state-owned oil company Petrolimex had siphoned off 400 liters of gasoline worth more than VND8 million. The Penal Code also mandates that robbery of property worth VND2 million or more is a crime.

"The dismissal of tank truck drivers is their internal disciplinary measure. They should be tried for two crimes - stealing and making counterfeit products since they mixed other substances to replace the stolen gasoline," Ha said.

 "This is only one case. I am sure they siphoned gasoline many times and in large volumes."

Since it allowed a large volume of gasoline to be stolen causing loss of public property, Petrolimex should face charges of irresponsibility, he said.

The police should keep the media informed about the progress of the investigation to show their "determination," he said.

Ha backed Vietweek's recommendation to eliminate Petrolimex's monopoly in the gasoline market: "Curbing monopoly is always good."

The Ministry of Industry and Trade should oversee gasoline trading better to protect the rights of millions of consumers, he added. (By Nguyen Hang)

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