Next killer gas blast is 'only a matter of time'

A GAS safety expert has warned he is "absolutely certain" there will be another devastating explosion similar to the one that killed a Scottish family of four.

Alan Dick, a former engineering operations manager for Lanarkshire, has said it is "only a matter of time" before there is another tragedy in Scotland.

Andrew Findlay, 34, his wife Janette, 36, and their children Stacey, 13, and Daryl, 11, were killed as they slept when a massive gas explosion ripped through their home in Larkhall, Lanarkshire, just three days before Christmas in 1999.

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Gas supply firm Transco had faced a charge of culpable homicide, the first of its kind against a Scottish company. But earlier this month three Appeal Court judges ordered the charge to be dropped, describing it as "irrelevant".

Dick, who worked in the gas industry for 35 years, said he was dismayed at the decision.

The Labour councillor and former Provost in South Lanarkshire warned that the potentially deadly gas supply faults which may have led to the deaths of the Findlay family are replicated across Scotland, putting tens of thousands of families at risk.

Dick said: "I am despondent because I am absolutely certain that what happened in Larkhall will happen again. There are tens of thousands of people in Scotland who are supplied with gas in the same way as the Findlay family and they are at risk. I honestly believe it’s just a matter of time before we see a similar tragedy."

The Findlays’ gas supply was not on a main line. Domestic supply enters the home at a pressure of about 0.3lbs per square inch. But the medium pressure supply to the Findlays’ home - and to tens of thousands of others in small towns, villages and rural areas of Scotland - was 100 times greater.

Supplies of this kind are fitted with a medium-pressure regulator to convert the pressure to the normal domestic level. A ‘slam-shut’ mechanism is built in to cut off the supply in the event of the regulator failing.

But Dick claims that the regulators, which were serviced annually and overhauled at least every two years when he worked in the industry ten years ago, are no longer subject to routine maintenance.

The gas main that supplied the Findlays’ home was also found to be riddled with fractures. One of the 19 holes found in the iron pipe was big enough for a man to crawl through.

It has been claimed that Transco’s records at the time of the blast wrongly showed that the old-fashioned pipeline had been replaced with a safer plastic pipe.

Commenting on the Appeal Court decision, Dick described it as a "travesty".

He said: "Three-and-a-half years after this family was wiped out, we still don’t know whether the regulator failed, or whether gas from the fractured main found its way into the house via ducts for power or phone cables.

"There are thousands of these medium-pressure regulators up and down the country. Despite the tragedy in 1999 there is no routine maintenance going on."

Dick added that gas mains across Scotland, many of which were older than the one supplying the Findlay family’s home, are fractured.

"Mains of the type that was so riddled with fractures at Larkhall are still in service. Some are even older," he said.

"There is a main through East Kilbride that is a cast iron, 18-inch pipe. It is the main supply through East Kilbride and in some places runs no more than six inches below ground, coming close to residential and commercial property. It was laid more than 55 years ago."

Dick said he feared that the decision to drop the corporate killing charge against Transco meant that there would not now be a "proper, in-depth examination of the policies and practices of an industry that handles a very dangerous fuel".

He added: "People like me who care about the industry were not looking for another body, in the way of a scapegoat, that would have been singled out for public shame. We were looking to establish what layer of policy led to this tragedy. Without that, this type of tragedy will certainly happen again."

Transco was shamed by auditors in 2000 when it emerged it had under-spent its agreed pipeline maintenance and replacement programme by 358m over the previous two years to benefit shareholders.

Since privatisation, and in particular since the re-organisation of the industry in 1997, when Transco was formed, it has shed thousands of engineering posts.

Dick said the decline in safety standards was well illustrated by the fact that a decade ago, routine surveys were carried out during the winter following sudden temperature changes to check for cracks in pipes.

Now, he said, the temperature range required to trigger the surveys has been relaxed by a factor of ten and there are no dedicated survey vehicles left in the gas industry.

Although the corporate killing charge has been dropped, Transco still faces prosecution under Health and Safety legislation and the prospect of a limitless fine over the Larkhall blast.

Last night a spokeswoman for Transco said: "As legal proceedings are still on-going over the Larkhall incident, we cannot discuss anything that might impinge on those proceedings. We would say however that safety is our number one priority."

Relatives of the Findlay family voiced anger over the failure of the Crown Office’s bid to bring a corporate killing prosecution against Transco. William Gracie, the brother-in-law of Janette Findlay, said he was "sickened" by the decision.

His wife Senga said she "could not believe" that a culpable homicide charge would not now be brought.

The Gracie family’s own home, which was several hundred yards from the Findlay home, was badly damaged by the gas blast.

The Gracies bought the site of the Findlay home on Larkhall’s Carlisle Road, and have now constructed a new house on the plot.

The family’s MSP, Karen Gillon, from Labour, is calling for the Scottish Executive to create a new offence of corporate killing to overcome the limitations of the current legislation.

Corporate death case fails

SCOTLAND’S prosecutors, the Crown Office, had hoped to make legal history by pursuing the first corporate homicide case in Scottish legal history against Transco. But the gas supply firm successfully persuaded a panel of three Scottish appeal judges to throw out the corporate killing charge earlier this month.

The judges, sitting in the Court of Criminal Appeal, overturned a previous judicial ruling that the prosecution could go ahead.

The prosecution bid is believed to have failed because the law states that a specific individual within a company has to be identified as the "directing mind" behind the actions of the company leading to the deaths of victims.

It is not enough to state that a general culture of neglect contributed to deaths. Legal experts had previously speculated that the Crown Office would find it hard to pinpoint one individual within the gas giant to blame for alleged failings that might have contributed to the Larkhall gas blast.

The Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, left, said that he had decided to bring the charge to test Scots law on this issue. The Scottish Executive is now likely to look at creating specific new offences of corporate killing as a result.