Fuel to the fire

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Siphoned gasoline replaced by other liquids by unscrupulous tank truck drivers may be the cause of car and motorbike fires


Two men pumping liquid into a tank truck after spiriting hundreds of liters of gasoline. Low quality fuel is now considered the prime suspect responsible for the many car and motorbike fires over the past year.

Two Vietnamese ministries are scouring for low quality gas at retail stations nationwide, suspected of causing a spate of car and motorbike fires over the past year.

Lieutenant General Pham Quy Ngo, deputy minister of Public Security, has instructed its inspectors "at all levels" to review the importation and distribution of fuel and verify if there is fraudulent gas being sold at retail stations. Local police have been instructed to promptly respond to any new car or motorbike fires to identify the cause.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Science and Technology is collecting 3,000 gas samples from stations and stores nationwide for testing in order to determine fuel quality.

While authorities are still verifying if low quality gas could be the main culprit of the increase in vehicle fires, Vietweek had conducted an investigation that found an illegal scam involving siphoning off gasoline and replacing the stolen fuel with certain liquids to make up the losses during transportation.

Normally, gasoline is distributed to retail stations by trucks with four-chamber tanks capable of holding 16,000 liters.

However, truck drivers and transport services have been known to steal portions of the load, refilling tanks with fraudulent fuel during quick stops at arranged locations en route, Vietweek reporters found.

Alleged siphoning has occurred at the Nha Be Gasoline Depot, a major outlet that distributes gas to a majority of retail stations in the region located in HCMC's Nha Be District, as well as at several other locations along adjacent District 7's Huynh Tan Phat, Hoang Quoc Viet and Dao Tri streets.

These places are carefully surrounded by high walls and lack addresses or company names at their entrances, where several men patrol for witnesses. These men quickly open and close the gate to allow fuel trucks to enter and exit.

Each truck only stopped for around 15 minutes before speeding to make up the lost time on their way to retail stations.

In investigations, Vietweek reporters found a large yard full of tanks and pumps. A truck stopped and a waiting man quickly removed the seal of the tank.

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Two others quickly discharged gasoline into eight 50-liter cans. Then, one of them passed a pipe to the man on the tank to pump a transparent liquid in to make up for the lost volume. Finally, they added approximately one liter of another liquid before resealing the tank and signaling the truck to leave.

After the truck left, they poured the stolen gasoline into larger tanks for unknown persons arriving on motorbikes to take away.

During two weeks following these locations, Vietweek found many visiting trucks belonging to the state-owned Vietnam National Petroleum Group (Petrolimex), Petrolimex's Engineering Company, HP Transportation Service and several other companies. One of the trucks, belonging to Petrolimex Engineering Company, has visited a location and removed gasoline everyday.

On Tuesday (January 10), Petrolimex deputy general director Vuong Thai Dung said that some employees at the company and its subsidiary Engineering Company had admitted to tampering gasoline.

However, he said the employees involved denied that they had mixed other substances to remaining gasoline.

"Petrolimex has requested the police investigate the case. We identify this as thievery," he said, adding that the company has assigned specific employees to each step of the gasoline delivery process and that he expects investigators will determine who was at fault.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of liters of gasoline has been siphoned and replaced with unknown liquids everyday at the locations in District 7.

After days of spying at these locations, Vietweek reporters followed the trucks and found lax protocols for receiving gasoline at retail stations.

After discharging a certain volume of gasoline at the secret location, one of Petrolimex's trucks sped through districts 4 and 1 before arriving at the Petrolimex Bach Dang Station in Binh Thanh District.

A gas station employee only gave the truck a quick glance before pumping its fuel into the station's underground tanks, either ignoring or not noticing that the seal had been broken and fixed in a makeshift manner.

This truck was also found distributing to many other stations around HCMC and nearby Binh Duong Province over the past days.

A source told Vietweek that truck drivers and transportation service owners have often colluded with some employees at gas stations to forgo the checking of seals as required. In other cases, culprits have used equipment available at the black market to make new seals, he said.

A quick calculation found each truck could earn up to VND8 million by siphoning off 400500 liters of gas per trip.

Some truck drivers just stopped their vehicle on the street to remove gas. They often deliver gasoline at noon, when the fuel volume inflates due to high temperatures, to avoid the scam being detected.

Besides discovering the ploy to steal gasoline, Vietweek also found that the Tan Phong Company in District 7 licensed to trade gas has illegally mixed diesel oil (DO) and fuel oil (FO) to sell around the city for below market prices.

At the company, tankers often visit for more than an hour to siphon large volume of diesel oil, refilling tanks with low quality gas made from used engine oil and other chemicals.

After an alarming number of car and motorbike fires have had the nation tense, the science ministry chief inspector Tran Minh Dung confirmed that low quality gas had been found.

"There is possibility that gas is the reason [for vehicle fires] but we have to wait for a detailed conclusion," he told the media on Tuesday, adding that a lack of regular maintenance or the installment of extra devices could also be to blame.

The fuel test being conducted by the science ministry was ordered by the central government on January 4 in hopes of resolving the issue.

"There have been many cases of car and motorbike fires and explosions without clear cause. One of the reasons was alleged to be gas quality," according to the instruction.

On January 3, the science ministry's Product Quality Management Department said they had found six low quality gas samples in Hanoi and HCMC.

Statistics released during a press briefing held by the Transport Ministry on the same day showed a total of 50 cases of motorbike fires and 39 cases of car fires in 2011, killing two people and injuring two others.

The vehicles involved were made by different manufacturers including Honda, SYM, Hyundai, Daewoo, BMW, Mercedes, Ford, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia and Toyota.

The reason for the fires remains unclear for up to 72 percent of those involving motorbikes and 30 percent of car fires. Identified reasons include short circuited electrical wires, collisions with other vehicles on the street, fire spreading from parking lots and arson.

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 88 million.

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