Jerusalem tragedy

It is better for the Israel Electric Corporation to generate current with gas than for us to cook with it at home.

Jerusalem gas explosion, January 20, 2014. (photo credit: MAGEN DAVID ADOM)
Jerusalem gas explosion, January 20, 2014.
(photo credit: MAGEN DAVID ADOM)
The horrific blast that killed an entire Jerusalem family – father, mother and toddler son – last week was a disaster waiting to happen. Sadly, this latest gas explosion was not unique.
It eerily resembles the Netanya blast of July 2011 that claimed four lives and left 61 injured. The cause then as now was a gas leak. Moreover, the Netanya tragedy was just one more misfortune in an alarmingly recurrent series of detonations.
After the obligatory hand-wringing we move on, as if this were unavoidable devastation inflicted by forces of nature.
But this lethal and destructive string of explosions is man-made. It is the product of an abysmally defective domestic gas infrastructure – for gas piped into our homes centrally or supplied via cannisters. The substandard infrastructure is exacerbated by faulty connections inside dwellings, slipshod maintenance, exposure to the whims of the weather and, inexplicably, lackadaisical safety supervision – only six government inspectors work nationwide.
Together, these factors turn our homes – in large apartment complexes and in private homes – into ticking time-bombs.
The domestic use of natural gas has from its earliest days in the 19th century been fraught with danger. To facilitate the detection of leaks, odorants must be added to the otherwise colorless and almost odorless gas used by consumers.
But all too often, as was the case just seven days ago, the build up of leaked gas is either ignored by the various suppliers or inadequately and belatedly dealt with. The result, if flow rates are high enough, is the accumulation of hazardous quantities of an easily combustible compressed fuel.
It is not that we lack satisfactory rules and regulations.
We have plenty of those. Gas cannisters, for instance, may not be installed under windows, to minimize the risk of filling the interior with fumes. Gas may not be stored in subterranean reservoirs under buildings, and, above or below ground, containers need to be at least three meters away from any openings such as doors and windows.
Yet, all too often, these worthy requirements are not implemented.
And when things do go frighteningly awry, as in Jerusalem last week – where the gas company technician had earlier been summoned – the service is slapdash.
As recently as last October, the state comptroller published a caustic report on domestic gas suppliers and the lax governmental supervision that allows them to continue with the apathy and carelessness that has for years characterized their operations.
Often, periodical checks are either not conducted or tend to be sloppy. The Jerusalem building in question was given the all-clear on September 2012, and that was to suffice for five years – right up to September 2017.
There is a multiplicity of variables here regarding what could have gone so wrong. But above all the question marks, hovers the fact that the building’s occupants smelled the acrid odor of gas, alerted the company and remained attentive and anxious. They were not negligent.
The only conclusion is that despite all due precautions on part of the residents, there had been gross mishandling somewhere along the line. This calamity can under no circumstance be ascribed to an inescapable force majeure.
Other similar experiences have been described by homeowners who summoned technicians because of a sharp smell of gas, only to be given the run-around or have their complaints belittled. In many cases, this ends without dire consequences. In others, it does not.
This must compel all consumers to think long and hard about alternatives to the domestic use of gas. The potential for disaster exists and the lack of control and supervision over the domestic gas providers is glaringly chronic.
Perhaps the only choice we have is to switch away from gas. It may be somewhat cheaper than electricity, but in our environment it is clearly unsafe. It is better for the Israel Electric Corporation to generate current with gas than for us to cook with it at home.