Thursday, 3 February 2005
Health and Safety Regulations.
I bring to the attention of the House a matter which, if not addressed, may have tragic consequences. A natural gas supply has been installed in a significant number of houses, especially in urban areas, and some of the people concerned are sitting on a time bomb. While I am not an expert on gas, I have some points to raise. Has the natural gas Bill, due to be enacted in 2004, been enacted?
My first concern involves the certification of people who install or repair gas services. The IS813 regulation requires people who install such services to have a certain certification and FÁS intermittently provides a gas installer training course for places on which there is usually a long waiting list. A safety assurance programme was established under the existing legislation by Bord Gáis in 1987 according to which gas may be supplied without mandatory inspections only to installations which meet the programme's requirements. The programme requires an installer to have demonstrated the necessary competence in safe installation by completing the relevant FÁS course or holding an equivalent qualification. A random selection of inspections is carried out over a period of time and the system is regularly audited.
My difficulty is that a promise was made in the context of the deregulation of the gas network that the new gas Bill would provide for certification. While a person installing a system is required to hold a certification, there are no penalties for an installer who does not. In nine times out of ten it is probable that a person who offers a service by dropping a card through one's door or advertising in the window of the local shop will do a competent job. However, if he or she does not apply the proper standards or lacks the proper training, there is nothing which can be done besides legal action to penalise him or her. Any legislation introduced should provide for stiff fines and penalties for anyone who installs or repairs gas equipment without having the proper qualifications.
One of the main components of a gas pipe network is what is known as "flux", which is used to solder together the pipe work. While I am not an expert on gas, I have spoken to a number of people involved in gas equipment installation. According to my sources, there are only one or two products which conform with international standards, including La-co power-flow flux, which is non-acidic and non-toxic. The difficulty with this flux is that it is harder to apply than other commonly employed fluxes. One requires a higher level of skill to use it, which is where the training comes in. If one does not have the higher level of skill, one is not able to use this proper, more expensive flux. The majority of fluxes used to solder gas pipes is corrosive, which means that over time the gas piping will corrode. If that happens, leakages will occur and, depending on where the gas is installed, that can lead to explosions. A legal action is being taken by residents in an estate in Leixlip, County Kildare, as a result of this problem.
External fittings are also an issue but the flux issue needs to be addressed in legislation. The highest international standards must apply because if only one in 200,000 gas pipes corrodes because of an acidic flux, that is one too many in terms of putting people's lives in jeopardy.
Brian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising the matter, the reply to which I am making on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. I understand the context in which the Deputy has raised this matter and I assume he is aware of the unfortunate incident in 2003 at Glendoher Close, Rathfarnham. All the members of the family involved were injured in an explosion. The family house exploded as a result of a leak of gas from a cast iron main which had fractured in the footpath outside and gas entered the house underground.
Following that incident, Bord Gáis accelerated its programme of replacement of cast iron mains. The circumstances of that incident were fully investigated at the time by the Commission for Energy Regulation. The report published by the commission recommended that Bord Gáis put in place a parallel programme of cast iron mains replacement in areas where the ground was liable to subsidence. BGE had been engaged in systematically replacing the older networks over the past 17 years. Two thirds of the older networks have been replaced with modern polyethylene pipes. Prior to the incident, it had been intended to replace the remainder of the system over a ten to 15 year period. A full audit of these mains was carried out by BGE and the replacement programme has been accelerated and is being carried out on a reducing risk basis.
During 2004, BGE developed a plan in conjunction with the CER to renew the final third of the system over the next five years. A total of 112 km of cast iron main was replaced in 2004. BGE proposes to renew approximately 200 km of cast iron main during 2005, with all remaining cast iron pipes due for renewal by end 2009. Arising from the audit of pipe work and risk analysis, the replacement programme is scheduled on a reducing risk basis whereby the highest category of risk is dealt with first and it is due to be fully completed by the end of 2009.
All the activities of distribution system operators are licensed and supervised by the Commission for Energy Regulation. This ensures that appropriate standards are implemented and adhered to, including standards for the physical durability of the system. These standards are determined by the National Standards Authority of Ireland through its gas technical standards committee. BGE is required under its licence conditions to produce a code of operations on all aspects of safe design, construction and operation of the network.
On the issue of gas safety generally, legislative proposals to ensure the safety of the public, including the regulation of natural gas installers were published for consultation last November. These proposals will give the commission responsibility to regulate and promote safety and make it illegal for a person who is not a registered gas installer to work on a natural gas fitting. While a responsibility rests also with the homeowner to ensure he or she only engages reputable qualified installers to undertake work on domestic installations, the new legislation, when enacted, will, by registering and controlling the qualifications of installers, make it easier for a member of the public to identify a qualified person. It is hoped to complete the consultation process shortly with a view to having the proposed legislation enacted before the summer.
The legislative proposals were published in November 2004 together with the CER's vision for a future safety framework. The closing date for receipt of written submissions was 7 January 2005 and a number of submissions has been received from interested parties. These submissions are being examined and discussions are taking place with a number of these parties with a view to clarifying the issues raised. Officials will meet BGE in this context later. It is hoped the proposed legislation as part of an energy miscellaneous provisions Bill will be enacted before the summer but this will be heavily dependent on availability of resources in the Attorney General's office and the Oireachtas schedule.