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Frontline Scotland 28 November 2000
Safe as houses?
 real 56k

Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 13:21 GMT
Safe as houses? - Transcript

This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's Safe as Houses? programme broadcast on 28 November and presented by Ewan McIlwraith.

REPORTER: Batley, in West Yorkshire. Last week two people died as a result of a gas explosion when the mains pipe fractured outside their home.

Larkhall. A year ago. A family of four dies when the gas main fractures.

Gas mains controlled by Transco, the privatised gas pipeline operator.

And, in October, two more people die in Dundee.

Just over a month ago this empty site was home to two families. It was a Sunday morning like any other when suddenly a massive gas explosion ripped through the houses, leaving two dead and one seriously injured.

Tonight, Frontline Scotland asks: "Are Transco putting shareholders and profit before safety and people?"

Linfield Street, Dundee. Two members of the Baillie family die in a gas explosion that leaves one of the women seriously injured.

MARGARET MULLPETERS, eyewitness: I felt a lot of trembling. Then the next thing the roof¿the flames went about 30 feet in the air, and it just caves in. And the window frames and that were in the neighbours' garden. There was a lot of debris in mine, but we got rid of that, that's nothing. Then the next thing I heard Francis screaming: "Help me, help me, help me." Well I just ran right down and we got hold¿because the woman was in shock, and just¿Jim Fernie was awful good.

JIM FERNIE, eyewitness: The woman was just coming out the house. She was on fire, on top of the rubble. So I put the fire out¿I don't know how, I just put them somewhere¿she was badly burned, I couldn't get a hold of her. She was on fire here, and her arms, so I managed to get that out. And I couldn't hold her, she was saying "Leave us¿", so I had got her off the rubble. I just don't know how she got out alive, I just don't know, I've no idea, haven't a clue. But when I was standing trying to get her off the rubble that's¿the flames just went up in the house, you know.

REPORTER: So it was quick?

JIM: Oh, it was horrendous.

MARGARET MULLPETERS: ¿she was still smouldering, no hair, anything like that, and our main concern that if there was another blast we were all dead. Getting away from the front door as far as you can, like. So the first thing we thought was take her in the house, at least we'll maybe a bit safer down there, sort of thing.

REPORTER: But, Mrs Mullpeter's house and her garden weren't as safe as she'd assumed. Days later Transco admitted in a letter to residents that a leak in the main supply lead to the explosion. They wrote to inform the residents, and to say that the mains supply would be urgently replaced. And when the workers came to her house they discovered the pipe in her own garden also had fractured.

MRS MULLPETERS: There was a smell of gas, and when they had a leak outside my front door, which I didn't know of until they dug the hole, the lad knocked on the door and he says¿ "Did you know you had a gas leak outside?", I says: "No, and did you have to come and tell me?" As simple as that, but there was a fracture in ??unclear?? mains as well, so it could have been me that was gone. It could have happened any place.

REPORTER: There had been a succession of reports of gas leaks in the same street. Some did lead to faulty household equipment. But according to residents, at least three were attributed to false alarms. One had come from number 23, the house that later blew up.

MRS MULLPETERS: I had reported a gas leak, and it was during July.

FRED EWEN, eyewitness: It was in July, it was a Saturday evening, about 9.30, round about that¿

FEMALE: Ehem, ehem¿

FRED EWEN: A Transco engineer appeared at my door. I says to him: "Well, I didn't send for you." He said that a next door neighbour had smelt gas. He couldn't detect it in her house, so he came and checked my house. Again, he couldn't detect anything. So, he just¿off he went.

MRS MULLPETERS: Right enough, they'd come up and they said there was nothing wrong. And it was as simple as that. They tested the stuff in the house, and that was it, they were away. They said everything was fine.

REPORTER: Now there's a new gas mains in Linfield Street, and each home has an outside meter, which means escaping gas from the main should vent to the air before reaching the house.

MRS MULLPETERS: I think everybody's been under threat. I mean they've rectified it now, but why do they have to wait on the disaster before anything's done. These pipes should have been checked years ago, not now. They should have been done years ago, and I stand by that.

ROBIN MARSHALL, Transco Director, Scotland: Dundee is an appalling tragedy. It affects us all. Gas safety is critical to us, and that has an impact upon us when we hear about this awful incident. One death is one death too many. We have a huge backdrop and a huge resource in terms of facilities to receive public reported escapes, to deal with public reported escapes, and to have people to go out and make safe. There was no records, so far as we are concerned, of any issue associated with somebody reporting a gas escape in the immediate past before Dundee.

REPORTER: Larkhall, three days before Christmas 1999, and the Findlay family perish after a huge gas explosion.

SANDY MACAULAY: I was just lying in my bed about 5.25 in the morning and I heard this enormous explosion. A bang, and then a kind of swooshing noise, that actually came in through the doors, up through the ceiling and blew the velux windows out, destroyed half of the roof, blew the garage windows out. I thought this was the end. When I looked out I saw Drew's house wasn't there, and the Sorbie's house, half of it was missing, and half of Jimmy's was missing. And the flames were shooting out of Drew's onto the roof, it was actually setting fire to the Sorbie's house.

MYRA DUNSMORE: Well we felt the house shaking and the windows were breaking in the house. And there was obviously something wrong, what was wrong we didn't know¿you know, we didn't know. First of all we thought that an artic had hit the building, but then when we ran outside we seen that it was obviously something in the street that had happened. So Jack and I ran up the street, and we kept saying there's a house missing, we couldn't quite believe that there was no house there. There was five houses when we went to bed that night, and then there was only four when we got up in the morning.

SANDY MACAULEY: The state of Drew's house, I just couldn't visualise anybody coming out it alive. I mean, there wasn't any¿there wasn't any of the house left.

REPORTER: So why did the Findlays die? A ductile iron gas main in the street had ruptured sending gas into the house. Nineteen leaks were later found in the pipe prompting the Health and Safety Executive to issue an Improvement Notice. The HSE are the body who set and police gas safety standards. Transco had to replace four kilometres of pipe within a month.

LEE MAXWELL, Emergency Planning Officer: Well the pipeline on the road here was replaced at the time, or just after the incident, and when we got into the middle of January Health and Safety served the Improvement Notice on Transco, which meant that the whole gas main in Larkhall had to be replaced¿ In order to do that without cutting off the supply to the people in Larkhall, a temporary bypass, which was roughly four kilometres was laid round the outskirts of the village. Where possible it was underground, but there were some sections of it that were above ground, but again, they were sandbagged and concreted to make sure that they were safe. We took out¿through the police we arranged wide consultation with the community to let them know what was happening, and Transco provided 24-hour security on the bypass over that time.

REPORTER: After fatal explosions like Larkhall and Dundee police are joined by investigators from the Health and Safety Executive who send pipe samples to a lab in Sheffield, specialising in explosions.

PHIL HAYES, Health & Safety Laboratory: We get involved in the more difficult causes, ones that are more difficult to diagnose. And typically we would be looking for presence of obvious fractures in a gas pipe; areas of corrosion; perhaps even holes in the gas pipe. There's this phenomena which is known as ??prophytic?? corrosion doesn't cause swelling of the pipe surface as it might do with a steel pipe. You don't get a swelling of the rust. The surface looks relatively similar to the surrounding material. This is a ??ductile?? pipe where prophytic corrosion would have developed as a plug in the wall of the pipe, and it will have grown entirely through the wall of the pipe making it a very fragile area, so fragile, in fact, that the pressure of the gas in the pipe would have been sufficient to blow out the plug of corrosion ??product??, and once that happens, of course, the gas can escape from the pipe. Now, under certain conditions the gas would percolate up through the soil and might escape sort of harmlessly into the atmosphere. But in other conditions, for example where the ground is frozen, the gas would not be able to escape that way, and may its way along beside of the pipe and eventually find its way, perhaps through an unsealed hole, into the domestic premises.

REPORTER: Researchers have found that ductile iron pipes corrode unpredictably depending on variations in the soil. They were first introduced in the 1980s, but now the HSE believe they could fail at any time.

ALAN SEFTON, HSE: Originally, it was estimated that ductile iron in the pressure mains would last about 30 years. But we're not no longer happy that that is, in fact, the case. In other words, the failure due to corrosion is unpredictable.

REPORTER: HSE studies of the pipe which failed at Larkhall lead to a radical shake-up of the ductile iron pipe replacement police. The findings were dramatic. Rather than a 30 year life expectancy they found that pipe failure couldn't be predicted, they could blow at any time.

ALAN SEFTON: But as a result of the Larkhall incident, which involved ductile medium pressure mains, there has been a review of the continuing irons main replacement policy in the UK, and as a result of that it's now been agreed that all ductile iron mains of medium pressure will be replaced by the end of 2002. And HSE in September issued an Improvement Notice, an Enforcement Notice to Transco requiring that that policy be carried through and agreeing the rate at which that would happen. There's about 2,500km of ductile mains in the UK, and all of that should be replaced by the end of 2002. And we're agreed that it cannot, in real terms, be done any more quickly than that.

REPORTER: Would you like that to be done if it was possible?

ALAN SEFTON: If it was possible, but in real terms in terms of the availability of contractors, all the issues associated with closing down, with the closing down mains, and ensuring ¿you know¿.a continuous gas supply.

REPORTER: So the Health and Safety Executive want ductile gas pipes replaced as quickly as possible, which is all fine and well if you know what kind of pipes you've got, and exactly where they are. But Frontline Scotland has been told that changes to the way Transco keep records means that mistakes have been made. In fact, we've been told that the iron pipe which runs through the centre of Larkhall was wrongly shown on Transco's records as already being replaced by a modern plastic pipe similar to the one behind me.

"GARY", Gas industry employee: One of the problems within the industry is local offices have been closed, records that were available locally are now centralised, local knowledge, i.e. the individuals that knew where all these lines were, these people are no longer around. One of the problems that we have is that there seems to be quite a few records that have gone missing either through moving offices and centralising. That was quite apparent at Larkhall. On the system, the ductile iron pipe was identified as a polyethylene pipe, when in actual fact it was ductile iron. That was fairly serious.

REPORTER: So, if these allegations are true, and the computer record was wrong in Larkhall, there are serious implications for Transco's ductile iron replacement programme, and for consumer safety. So was the ductile iron pipe in Larkhall wrongly recorded on computer as modern plastic.

ROBIN MARSHALL: Larkhall was an appalling tragedy. It affected us all profoundly. It affected us in Transco no less than anybody else because safety is our first priority. We spent £600m a year on maintaining the gas supply system. When Larkhall happened we gave a commitment to the authorities that we'd work with them to ascertain what occurred. I've not yet seen the results of that investigation. Until I have done so I cannot comment. What I will say is this - that the maintenance that we do we will continue to do. Money is not an issue so far as safety is concerned. We will never compromise on safety.

REPORTER: But basically it's been put to us because of mistakes in digitising records you just can't be sure what you've got in the ground.

ROBIN MARSHALL: I have no evidence to support any such suggestions, and I do not agree with it. We have spent over the course of the last two years £45m improving our record system. We will continue to do so into the future.

REPORTER: If that was the situation what would you be doing about it?

ROBIN MARSHALL: We will continue to invest and to make sure that the records are as accurate and as up to date as they possibly can be. We have 260,000km of pipeline, enough to stretch round the world six-and-a-half times. Against that backdrop it's critically important that whenever we have an opportunity to update our records we do, we will continue to do that. You will appreciate there's been a major expansion of the gas supply system over recent years, and all of the recent pipe work in that connection clearly will be updated, and the records will be updated on a continuing basis. We will continue with that.

REPORTER: The computerisation of records was one change brought on by the privatisation of Britain's gas services in 1986. Scotland's worst gas explosion at Clarkston in 1971 happened when gas was a public service. Twenty-two people died when a gas build-up demolished a shopping complex.

It was 15 years later when we told Sid to buy shares in British Gas. They subsequently sold off the pipeline provider, Transco. Since then there's been dramatic cost-cutting. Over the last six years 6,000 jobs have gone, while it's been reported for those that remain working hours in some cases breach the European working times directive. According to the unions staff are stretched and safety compromised.

BRIAN STRUTTON, GMB Union: There is always a conflict where you're attempting to cut costs as against safety. Having a safe piping of gas costs money. That is a simple fact. And if we are to work safely we must have enough staff, and we must have enough skilled staff able to do that work to protect both themselves, and equally as importantly the general public. The skills level is still very high, and they are training people to become craftsmen and women. The problem is they are not taking on enough workers to meet the demand that is out there for the type of work that needs to be done. And this is then placing enormous pressure on the people who are working for Transco to do the work that is out there. Our members are often working up to 15 hours on a shift. At the end of that period when they're working with such a dangerous substance as live gas, you can have a situation in which very tired workers make mistakes. And the problem with making a mistake with live gas is it can be lethal for the member involved, and also members of the public.

"GARY": There is a lack of people out there. This time of year most operatives appear to be having a Christmas bonus out of this, doubling up their salary, or sometimes even more than that due to the amount of hours they've got to work. There is a lot of worried people out there. Not only worried that this sort of thing happens, but their work situation is such that it could be one of them that's involved in a similar incident.

REPORTER: Transco deny breaking European regulations, and deny new staffing policies are jeopardising safety.

ROBIN MARSHALL: We are one of the most heavily regulated industries in the UK, and it's right that we should be. And that means that all our safety critical policies, and our procedures we share and discuss with the HSE. We only move forward and we only apply those safety critical policies and practices after we're received their advice and their guidance. That extends to how we use our direct labour and how we use our contractors.

REPORTER: The deaths in Dundee and Larkhall were tragic and hit the headlines. But how many leaks are there across the country that don't make the news, just one spark away from possible tragedy. Well here in Inverness just two weeks ago there was a major fracture in the gas main only yards from this school. And it set off what the police called a major incident.

MAIRIE LUMSDEN: DAVID LUMSDEN: They didn't seem to know what was going on. I mean they knew they were looking for a pipe that carried gas, but as to what the pipe looked like, they didn't know.

REPORTER: And in Glenrothes in January. Sixty residents were evacuated from a block of flats for 24-hours as Transco handled a major leak in the mains outside.

DIANE BARNES: My niece came through the door shouting: "Aunty Diane, put the gas off, there's a gas leak." I didn't know where to turn the gas off. So she came out here and she started shouting, "My Aunty Diane doesn't know how to switch the gas off¿", and a guy from number 19 came running up and he went in the kitchen and put the gas off.

REPORTER: So what was going through your mind at that point?

DIANE: I was shaking. My stomach was trembling and I felt frightened, scared. I had put the kettle on to make coffee, I'd made the coffee, we all got one mouth from the coffee and the door knocked, and I went to the door and it was the man from Transco. And he just told me to put my shoes on, get my coat and my bag and just leave.

LESLEY HISLOP: ¿the door¿chapped the door and said there was major gas leak and that everyone was being asked to evacuate the building. I just¿was feeding Bradley, he was only 10-months-old old at the time, and your first thought is to get out with having him. I picked up my rucksack that has most of his stuff in it, and it was just the first instinct to get out, and it was absolutely stinking. We went into the stairwell, and it was really¿really bad.

DIANE BARNES: And as we came out you saw from number 21 the haze coming out the door, and this holes in the window.

REPORTER: This was down¿..

DIANE BARNES: Just down there.

REPORTER: What was it like when you came out, what did you see?

DIANE BARNES: It was just like¿like if you get the haze, like the heat in the road, it was something like that, but it was just sort of coming straight out the door.

REPORTER: Pretty scary.

DIANE BARNES: It was frightening, very frightening.

JOHN MEIL: You think about it when you hear about other ones, you think we're really lucky that they actually got it and nothing actually happened.

REPORTER: How urgent were the people from Transco, how desperate were they to get you out of the house?

DIANE BARNES: Very urgent because it was only a matter of 15 minutes from the time it was reported to the time we were out. So it must have been quite desperate.

LESLEY HISLOP: I think we were very lucky. It was a major gas leak. We overheard one of the gas men saying it was the biggest gas leak he'd had. Anything could have put that up.

ROBIN MARSHALL: We spent £600m ensuring that we got resources in place to receive telephone calls, and to act on telephone calls dealing with gas escapes. We send qualified people to that scene, and we ensure that they make every possible inquiry for as long as it takes to establish what the situation is on site. I am confident in those circumstances that our investment is commensurate, it's appropriate.

REPORTER: So there are clearly safety issues at stake, and there are strong parallels with Railtrack. At the moment Transco are responsible for providing the gas network. They're also responsible for safety and for returning a profit. And there was a similar split of responsibilities on the rail network. They too were responsible for turning in a profit for safety and for providing the network. But, in the light of recent rail tragedies an independent shadow authority with responsibility for safety was set up. Is it time for Transco to be governed by a similar independent authority with responsibility for safety?

BRIAN STRUTTON: It may be a small step in the right direction in having some form of authority over-looking the safety of the gas pipe network. But quite frankly you don't just need an authority looking at the network. You need a whole different ethos in the nature of the company in the way it operates. And I believe the only way that you will get that fundamental change of the way that Transco operates is to take it back into public hands.

JOHN McALLION MP & MSP, Labour, Dundee East: I know there are various inquiries into what happened and, indeed, what happened in Larkhall. The reports will come out in due course¿but we have to ask about the wider background to these incidents. We don't want to know the immediate cause of the explosion, we want to know the background that led to these explosions. And it could well be that it was rationalisation that was laying off workers, there was not enough people in the industry, there was chances being taken with safety and inspections and so on. I would like a wide range of inquiry into all of these issues, and then to learn the real lesson from that before people really feel safe again in Scotland, or anywhere else in the UK.

REPORTER: Should you be regulated more tightly ?

ROBIN MARHSALL: We are the most heavily regulated industry in the United Kingdom we believe. As I have said the HSE perform a sterling role in that regard. We do not do anything unless we have shared our critical safety policies and procedures with them. We are regulated, we work to those standards, we will continue to work to those standards.

REPORTER: Was that yes or no?

ROBIN MARSHALL: We are regulated, we will work with anybody that is appropriate under those circumstances. There is no doubt about that. Safety is paramount for this organisation, and anything that any part of the gas community can do to improve safety we would universally applaud.

REPORTER: Do you not see a conflict though, safety is important, but you're also answering to shareholders?

ROBIN MARSHALL: There is absolutely no conflict whatsoever. Safety comes first. In each year we spend more in terms of operating expenditure on maintenance than we do on our shareholders. We spend three times more in operating expenditure than we do on our shareholders. We spend another £800m over the course of the next three years. It is nonsense to suggest that the shareholders come first. Safety comes first, the public come first. That is how it was, how it is now, and how it always will be for Transco.

REPORTER: In Larkhall the remains of the Findlay family home have gone. The Health and Safety Executive have prepared a report for the Procurator Fiscal which may lead to Transco facing charges in court. In the meantime Transco are doing nothing until the Procurator Fiscal makes a decision.

Nearly one year on and all that remains of the house is this gap. The surviving neighbours are trying to rebuild their lives and their homes. But they feel bitter that 12 months on there's been no admission of guilt, no compensation paid, not even an apology from Transco for a devastating night that ruined their lives.

MYRA DUNSMORE: There's nothing happening at the moment apart from us trying to rebuild our lives, rebuild the houses. We're still living in temporary accommodation. It's 11 months later. We're still trying to rebuild our houses. Everything just took absolutely ages, the paperwork, the insurance companies, everything just took ages.

REPORTER: So what financial help have you had. I mean your house has been ruined in the inside?

MYRA DUNSMORE: We haven't had any financial help apart from the insurance companies paying for the damage that was done to the building, and the building only. They haven't paid for anything else.

REPORTER: What about Transco ?

MYRA DUNSMORE: Transco hasn't done anything. Transco haven't paid for anything, Transco haven't even admitted liability.

REPORTER: No compensation?

MYRA DUNSMORE: Nothing.

SANDY MACAULAY: We don't really know what's happened. There's nobody really told us what's caused it, or to explain it to us. We don't really know yet. When you drive up by you'll always remember the Findlays stayed there. You'll never, never get over it, never.

REPORTER: Meanwhile in Dundee a Health and Safety investigation continues.

MARGARET MULLPETERS: I can still see them. Mary was so much looking forward to retiring next year. She retired from the school cleaning next year and she was really looking forward¿"Oh", she says, "I'm looking forward to it," she was right down to earth, Mary, she says "I'm really looking forward to retiring next year," I says "Well, good luck to you, have a holiday". Some bloody holiday.

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