Domestic gas becomes mass destruction weapon in Russia
Forty-four victims in two weeks is the price paid for the usage of domestic gas in apartment buildings. The cheap but dangerous gas has led to the death of at least 67 people in 2018. After the tragedies in Magnitogorsk and Shakhty, the lawmakers have finally understood that this issue has to be solved somehow. But the experts doubt the effectiveness of the proposed measures. Solutions exist – but they are too expensive to be introduced, even in large cities. Therefore, further catastrophes are inevitable.
The tragedy in Magnitogorsk became the sad symbol of the outgoing year. Early in the morning on December 31, a terrible explosion has destroyed an entire staircase section in a 10-storey building at 164/2 Karla Marksa street. Thirty-nine people, including 6 children, were killed. Eighteen persons were rescued in the first hours after the blast. Six more people, including 2 children, have been later rescued from the rubble by officers of the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM).
Horrific news from the scene reminded about the explosions of residential buildings in Moscow in 1999: a collapsed staircase section, colossal losses, new victims found with every hour...
Therefore, many people decided that it was not an explosion of the domestic gas – but a terrorist attack. The arrival of the President accompanied by heads of law enforcement structures to Magnitogorsk on the evening of December 31 had supported such speculations. However, no traces of explosives were found in the rubble, and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR) has officially refuted the terror version. On January 18, 2019, an Islamist source reported that the ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Magnitogorsk blast. According to that source, the terrorists have planted the explosive “between the third and tenth floors” and activated it on the morning of December 31.
Shortly after that, another tragedy occurred. On the morning of January 14, 2019, a blast has thundered a nine-storey building in Shakhty, Rostov region. Two upper floors in the second staircase section of the building have collapsed; 16 apartments were damaged or destroyed. Five people were killed, while seven – rescued. The tragedy destroyed an entire family: mother, father, and their 23-year-old daughter. Another victim was a local college teacher who had worked there for more than 30 years. EMERCOM rescuers managed to save a 2-year-old girl from the rubble. Her mother was killed; the father survived by a miracle and handed over the child to emergency response workers with a wounded hand.
This time, nobody was going to put the blame on terrorists. “The only version is a domestic gas explosion,” – Vasily Golubev, Governor of the Rostov Region, said. EMERCOM officers haven’t found any traces of explosives in the rubble. Today, it is safe to say that the blast in Shakhty was caused by domestic gas.
The Gazprom branch servicing the building has reported that it was checked in April–May 2018 and no violations were identified. However, the residents had repeatedly complained about the gas smell; the last complaint was received on December 10, 2018 – a month before the incident.
It was hard for the general public to believe that there no terrorist attacks. Only once in history, a domestic gas explosion has claimed so many lives – 58 people were killed in Arkhangelsk in 2004. The terrorist attack version was proposed at that time – but the expert assessment has determined that the actual reason behind the catastrophe was gas, not explosives.
Even before the announcement of preliminary findings in the inquests carried out in Magnitogorsk and Shakhty, experts had no doubt that the incidents were caused by domestic gas. They are well aware of things ordinary Russians refuse to believe: the usage of cheap gas causes fatalities on a regular basis. The specialists have calculated that gas-related incidents occur in Russia every 43 hours. “We collect statistics and observe a steady growth of the number of such incidents,” – Aleksander Moskalenko, President of GCE Group (Municipal Expertise Center), has stated back in late 2017. The number of so-called “gas puffs” in residences of Russian citizens has exceeded all limits a long time ago.
In 2018, the use of gas equipment has resulted in at least 17 tragedies and claimed 67 lives. On January 17, 2018, a gas puff has resulted in a fire in a 10-storey building at 5/4 Zabaikal'skaya street, Rostov-on-Don. A retiree living on the 5th floor was killed by the fire. A day before, he had complained about the strong gas smell, and the chairperson of the staircase section called for an emergency repair team. The gas workers arrived at the building and allegedly rectified the leak – but less than a day later, that apartment became the blast epicenter.
On the same day, January 17, domestic gas exploded on the 6th floor of an apartment building at 118 Pushkinskaya street, Izhevsk. A fire broke out in the kitchen; 39-old mother of four was killed. The children were not harmed because three of them were at school and one – in kindergarten at the time of the incident. After the death of their mother, these children became orphans because their father was killed in a car crash a year before the tragedy.
According to Sergei Zadorozhny, Deputy Head of the Municipal Administration for Housing and Utilities Sector, the last gas equipment inspection was carried out in the building in October 2015. On January 1, 2018, a governmental decree requiring to check the gas equipment in apartments not once in every three years – but on the annual basis has come into effect. But the specialists did not have enough time to inspect the building at 118 Pushkinskaya street...
On January 22, an explosion of a gas cylinder has caused a fire in a private two-storey home in Sedel'nikovo township, Omsk region. A large family with seven foster children had lived in that home. Five children were killed: sisters 6 and 10 years old, their 16-year-old brother, and two girls 11 and 18 years old. The foster mother suffered burns over half of the body's surface; the father was hospitalized in serious condition as well. Two children were not harmed because they were not at home at the time of the accident. "They are my relatives; they had adopted children from troubled families without any remuneration... It was an amazing family with a heart full of love. At least, these children had lived in love!" – Omsk resident Kseniya Buller wrote on a social network.
On March 1, a gas explosion caused a fire in a five-storey home at 5 Kirova street, Ramenskoe, Moscow region. Two women were killed and 11 people hospitalized. Some residents had to jump out of the windows of the burning building to save their lives. Later it became known that a few hours before the incident, the power was temporarily turned off in the building.
On March 2, a leak in a screw joint of a triplet has led to a tragedy in an apartment building at 18 Svobody street, Taganrog. A young woman and her little daughter died from gas poisoning.
On March 10, a domestic gas explosion has destroyed several apartments in a five-storey building in Krasnodar. Walls of the 4th and 5th floors partially collapsed, the stairway and roof were damaged. Seven people, including two children, were injured. The owner of the apartment where the blast has occurred died in a hospital from severe burns.
On March 14, six persons died from gas poisoning in a residential home in Krasny Elektrik township, Noginsk district, Moscow Region. A 31-year-old woman and three her children – 3, 5, and 10 years old – died in an apartment on the first floor, while a female retiree and her 55-year-old son – in an apartment on the second floor.
On March 17, a gas explosion occurred in a private home on Druzhnaya street, Germenchuk village, Shali district, Chechen Republic. The ceiling collapsed, and a fire broke out. One child was killed by the fire; two more people were hospitalized.
On the same day, March 17, a gas explosion caused a fire in an apartment on the 3rd floor of a nine-storey building at 3rd Molodezhnaya street, Omsk. The apartment owner – a 46-year-old woman – suffered burns of 85% of the body's surface and died in hospital.
On the evening of March 20, gas exploded in a five-storey building at 6/1 Sverdlova street, Murmansk. The blast was so strong that it smashed windows in nearby homes. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors have collapsed. Three people died: one of the scene and two others in the hospital. Three persons were injured.
On June 9, a blast has thundered an apartment on the second floor of a five-storey building in Oktyabr'sky township, Vanino District, Khabarovsk krai. The retired apartment owner born in 1929 was killed; two more persons were hospitalized.
On June 22, domestic gas exploded on the top floor of a five-storey building at 71 Nikiforova street, Zainsk, Tatarstan. Apartments on the 4th and 5th floors were damaged, the roof partially collapsed. Ten people, including an 8-year-old girl, were hospitalized; two of them later succumbed to their injuries.
On June 26, a gas cylinder has depressurized in a private home at 46 Lomonosova street, Krasnoe Selo, Leningrad Region. A 60-year-old retiree and a 10-year-old girl were killed. The child’s mother later died in the hospital. Two more residents were hospitalized in serious condition.
On September 20, a geyser exploded in a one-storey 4-apartment home in Ulukulevo township, Karmaskaly district, Bashkortostan. Two retirees were killed; two other persons were admitted to a hospital.
On October 25, a gas blast has completely destroyed a three-storey residential home on Vnutrenny driveway, Zheleznodorozhny district, Samara. One person was killed.
On November 6, a gas cylinder exploded in a new eight-storey building at Shkurlova street, Prigorskoe township, Smolensk region. Three people were injured; one of them later succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
On November 28, gas exploded in a 16-apartment building on a military base in Barsovo township, Kirzhach district, Vladimir region. A female retiree died under the rubble. Two residents were hospitalized with burns of various degrees. It is necessary to note that the home was not connected to the main gas pipeline – instead, it was equipped with a gas tank. For several days before the incident, the building had no gas – and the tank has been filled on November 28.
On December 15, gas exploded in a five-storey home at 74A Karla Marksa street, Vologda. A woman was killed; five more people – severely injured.
Catastrophes occur on a regular basis, while the experts insist that measures must be taken as soon as possible. However, the Russian authorities have finally understood the scope of the problem and the need to solve it only after the death of 39 people in Magnitogorsk and 5 more in Shakhty.
After the explosion in the Rostov region, Valentina Matvienko, Speaker of the Council of the Federation, said that a thorough analysis of the situation with domestic gas usage in apartment buildings is required. “Unfortunately, this happens on some periodic basis; the situation is alarming,” – Matvienko noted and instructed the Committee for Federal Structure, Regional Policies, Local Self-Government, and Northern Affairs to develop recommendations.
Oleg Mel’nichenko, Chairman of the Committee, has already announced a number of initiatives. First, he suggested to equip apartments using gas with a system automatically turning off the gas equipment in case of a leak or malfunctioning. However, experts doubt the feasibility of this proposal because the cost to install one electromagnetic valve is some 15 thousand rubles ($225). This translates into a huge sum nationwide: according to the Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat), 70% of residences in Russia – some 44.15 million apartments – use gas equipment.
The question is: where is the money to install electromagnetic valves in all the apartments?
By the way, Deputies of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly had already proposed to amend the federal legislation after gas-related incidents in two apartment buildings in March 2018. The St. Petersburg parliamentarians suggested to amend the technical regulations and require to equip all residential homes in the country using gas equipment with gas detectors. But the State Duma has defeated this initiative in 2018 as an excessive one. After the tragedy in Shakhty, the Deputies have changed their mind. Pavel Kachkaev, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma for Housing and Utilities Sphere said that it is necessary to equip all gas stoves with devices preventing the accumulation of unburned gas in a mandatory order. “I consider this one of the primary safety measures,” – the parliamentarian said. However, nobody promises that the installation of such devices would be free for the millions of gas users. That means that the initiative has no chance to be implemented: gas stoves belong to apartment owners and it is impossible to force them to upgrade the gas infrastructure at their own expense.
The lawmakers have also proposed to strengthen the control over the usage of gas equipment. In particular, Mel’nichenko suggested to transfer the security control powers to management companies and amend the Criminal Code to ensure the access of specialists to apartments that may have gas leaks. This primarily refers to asocial people – the authorities are trying to put the blame for all gas explosions on them. For instance, Ivan Belozertsev, Governor of the Penza Region, has put it straight: “The risks <of gas leaks> emerge in apartments where troubled families abusing alcohol live. If risks emerge, just commence the gas shutdown procedure”. However, the analysis of catastrophes that had occurred in the last year clearly shows that the blame cannot be entirely put on irresponsible residents. The victims may be blamed for only 2–3 accidents, while the other explosions are results of somebody else’s negligence and systemic problems in the usage of domestic gas.
In addition, many regions have already strengthened the control over the use of gas equipment – but without much result. For instance, in May 2018, specialists had inspected the equipment in the apartment building in Magnitogorsk, while the building in Shakthy was inspected in April and May. However, these checks failed to prevent the tragedies. “I suppose that in these particular cases, the specialists have just put checkmarks that the equipment was inspected. But we don’t know what was done in reality. You may look at any log or journal: checkmarks indicate that all the equipment was inspected. But if you ask the residents about the most recent inspection, they will tell you that they hadn’t seen specialists for several years,” – Konstantin Krokhin, member of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says.
Konstantin Krokhin, member of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Therefore, many experts believe that regular inspections won’t change the situation because the problem is much more serious. According to Krokhin, the gas supervision system has completely degraded in the last decades. Now it has to be recreated from scratch. The Housing and Utilities Committee of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been holding hearings with gas specialists for the last 10 years. At each session, they say that the gas sphere in Russia is in critical condition. Lack of a control system and usage of obsolete equipment and gas networks make the tragedies inevitable. "Based on the statistics, some 20 gas-related accidents with severe consequences occur on an annual basis. This translates to 1.5–2 accidents per month nationwide,” – Krokhin notes.
In fact, the very idea to use gas in high-rise buildings constitutes the main problem. It is cheap but risky – and developed countries are abandoning this practice. “In Europe, many homes still use gas for heating and water heating. But this applies only to low-rise buildings and in regions exercising strict control over the use of gas equipment,” – Krokhin believes. But in Russia, it is prohibited to use gas only in buildings higher than 12 storeys.
Sergei Belolipetsky, a tutor at the Sectorial Management Institute of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), also emphasizes the existence of a systemic error: “As long as 40 years ago, it became clear that the usage of gas bears too much risk. Still, the majority of apartments continue using gas equipment; this indicates a lack of housing development in the county”. The expert notes that since the 1970s, no projects of gas-equipped buildings were developed. However, Belolipetsky believes that it is currently impossible to completely abolish the usage of gas because such a decision would require billions of rubles. The solution exists, but it is way too expensive. “Let us prohibit the usage of obsolete gas equipment having no basic security devices widely used in other countries. But where is the money to acquire new equipment? It seems that it is cheaper to pay 1 million rubles ($15.1 thousand) to each affected family rather than to introduce modern equipment,” – Belolipetsky concludes.