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Topical Issue Debate - Gas Explosion

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 752 No. 2

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Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic and the Minister for coming in. I hope he will be able to respond in a constructive way to some of the points I want to make. While the gas explosion occurred in Leixlip, the town in which I live, I want to raise the issue in a wider context. Yesterday the Minister said approximately 640,000 households are connected to gas. Obviously, the safety of people whose homes are connected to and use gas is of paramount concern. I also wish a speedy recovery to one of the three people in the house in which the explosion occurred who was very seriously injured and is in hospital.

After I heard about the explosion on Saturday, I visited the area because not only are these people constituents but some of them are friends. The house in which the explosion occurred does not have gas central heating but oil fired central heating. The electricity went off at approximately 7 p.m. for a few minutes and an hour or an hour and half after that people smelled gas, Bord Gáis Éireann, BGE, was contacted and the people from BGE came out. There was a sizable gas leak so much so that it could be seen as steam rising to the height of a tree on the footpath. Gas was smelled by people on the road.

The house next door to that in which the explosion occurred has gas. The people from BGE came out, fixed the leak and left. I am not sure if the electricity went off at this stage but there seems to be a link between the electricity and gas. Gas does not respect property boundaries, so will seep into places. The house in which the explosion took place did not have gas central heating. It never occurred to them, therefore, that they would have to question whether the house was safe. A candle was lit and this ignited the gas in the house.

Many of the residents in the area were concerned that a wider check was not undertaken to test for the presence of gas in their houses and to evacuate some of them. The only action taken was to treat the gas leak and there is merit in their concern. I share their concerns that something more comprehensive should have have been done. I am sure the work was done by contractors for the gas company but it has overall responsibility. In advance of the completion of the inquiries into the explosion, which will determine the cause and which will take time, there is a wider issue about handling similar incidents if they arise in terms of the protocols around the contractors and safety procedures. Will the Minister engage with officials from BGE or CER or other appropriate officials in order that a similar incident does not recur? The three families evacuated remain out of their homes because serious damage was done to them. I appreciate that the Minister is present to reply.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Pat Rabbitte): Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the important topic of gas safety. I entirely agree with the Deputy that safety must be of paramount concern.

BGE is the owner of the national gas transmission and distribution systems and is mandated with the development and maintenance of the natural gas network under the Gas Act 1976. The Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, is the statutorily independent energy regulator charged with all aspects of the licensing of transmission and distribution operators. A key legal responsibility of the CER is to promote the safety of natural gas for customers and the public generally. The regulator’s remit also includes specific responsibility for the regulation from a safety perspective of undertakings involved in gas transmission, distribution, storage, supply [272]and shipping. It has established a natural gas safety regulatory framework, including a system for the inspection and testing of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines.

The CER places obligations on undertakings to ensure that safety risks associated with their operations are reduced to as low as reasonably practicable. BGE’s transmission and distribution operations are subjected to ongoing audit and inspection by the CER. Additionally, BGE reports quarterly to the CER on a comprehensive range of safety performance indicators to verify that all operations are in compliance with the overall natural gas regulatory framework. Safety is BGE’s first priority. The company is committed to ongoing development and maintenance of the gas networks and systems to ensure safety and to deliver continuous safety improvement and performance. It also has a continuous programme of safety promotion, including the gas efficiency service, the “dial before you dig” service, the promotion of registered gas installers and raising public awareness of the dangers of carbon monoxide.

Since its establishment, BGE has developed and modernised a national gas distribution pipeline network and a gas transmission pipeline network. The company operates the networks in compliance with recognised Irish and international quality and safety standards. Bord Gais Networks, BGN, manages gas network maintenance and safety programmes using procedures under the CER’s gas safety regulatory framework and the requirements of the Health and Safety Authority. The regulator has a comprehensive audit regime to monitor compliance with safety case requirements.

It is standard procedure that natural gas incidents are investigated by BGN and a report prepared on all relevant findings. In the case of the incident that occurred last Saturday, BGN has carried out a preliminary report into the incident. In accordance with standard procedures, the regulator has instructed independent consultants to carry out an investigation into the incident. I understand from the regulator that it expects the independent assessment to be completed early next week. The CER ensures that all follow-up actions from such investigations are subsequently carried out by BGE, as required, and that areas of learning from particular incident are used to put in place measures to help prevent similar incidents recurring.

I have every confidence in BGE’s priority commitment to safety and its safety and emergency response service but there is never room for complacency and the company is engaged in a constant process of safety review and enhancement working with CER.

I fully share the Deputy’s concerns in regard to the incident last Saturday and gas safety in general. I would like to convey my sympathy to the unfortunate injured occupants. There can be no room for complacency where the protection of life is concerned. We need to ensure that all lessons are learned from such incidents and that all necessary measures are put in place to reduce or eliminate the risks of similar incidents recurring.

CER’s process of investigation of gas safety incidents and follow-up action on recommendations is well established. An example is a gas explosion at a private residence in Rathfarnham in November 2003. Among the recommendations of the report of that investigation, all of which were endorsed by the CER, was that BGE should implement a programme of cast iron mains replacement in areas of subsidence. At the time, the company was systematically replacing the entire old networks with modern plastic pipes. Prior to the Rathfarnham incident the programme had been projected to take between ten to 15 years. In 2004, BGE revised its plans in conjunction with the CER and fast tracked completion of the renewal programme in five years.

It will be a matter for the CER to assess the recommendations of the two investigations into the Leixlip incident. The regulator will then consider what, if any, remedial measures are neces[273]sary to augment safety standards. I will take a close interest in the outcome of the regulator’s investigation.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy What happened last Saturday is rare. Many houses are connected to the network. I am connected to the gas network and I have confidence in the system. I welcome that the report will be delivered as soon as next week but this incident has exposed a weakness in that having fixed a gas leak, the next stage of testing the homes in the area for the presence of gas was not undertaken. That is the critical issue. It is a missing element in what should have happened. We read, watch and listen to various advertisements that ask us to ring a number if we smell gas, not to smoke or use a naked flame or not to unplug a switch and so on. However, if one is not connected to the gas network, the last thing one would think is that one could be at risk. There is a responsibility on BGE to ensure when such an incident occurs, the neighbouring area is also protected because there is no way that someone would have thought that lighting a candle in a house using oil fired central heating could cause an explosion.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I agree entirely with the Deputy that, happily, such incidents are rare but that does not mean this was not a most unfortunate incident. I extend my sympathy to the people injured in these circumstances. I am not sure it would be helpful for me to offer opinions. The preliminary accident report is filed already and that, in turn, triggers the next step, which is an international independent reputable forensic assessment of what happened and what the recommendations ought to be. That assessment will be concluded as early as next week and the regulator is bound, by his own custom and practice, to act on it.

In particular, I note what the Deputy stated about adjacent houses not having been evacuated and the care that she thinks was necessary not having been taken. Is it not appropriate for me — I do not have the technical qualifications — to get into that area, but I note what she stated and I am quite sure that it will be fed in to the examination being done.

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