By Heghine Buniatian
A consumer rights group accused Armenia’s government and natural gas distributor on Wednesday of failing to take adequate precautions in restoring centralized gas supplies to households that were disrupted shortly after the Soviet collapse.
The Armenian Union of Consumers said lax safety controls have been responsible for the death of seven people reportedly caused by gas leakages and carbon monoxide emissions.
“We have serious concerns on this issue. In terms of safety, the situation is far from satisfactory,” the union’s chairman, Armen Poghosian, told RFE/RL. “According to our information, there have already seven death cases in the country in recent weeks.”
The most recent deadly incident was reported from Armenia’s second city of Gyumri where two persons died in their apartment on Tuesday. Authorities there said they were suffocated by carbon monoxide released from their gas-fired heater. A similar death case was registered in the nearby town of Artik two days earlier.
Gas is increasingly used by Armenia’s population for heating purposes more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet-era system of central heating that covered most urban areas. It was one of the consequences of a severe energy crisis that gripped Armenia in the early 1990s, at the height of its armed conflict with Azerbaijan that cut off its main supply lines.
Armenian households stopped receiving natural gas around that time. Many of them still heat their apartments and houses with much more expensive electricity.
It was not until 1997 that the gas supplies began to be slowly restored. The country’s gas operator, Armrosgazprom, concluded that at the time the old network of underground pipes was eroded by years of disuse and decided to build a new one. Much of the bill has been footed by consumers, with an average family in Yerevan having to pay an equivalent of at least $150 to buy gas meters and connect their homes to the supplier.
The process gained momentum in 2002, with 70,000 households connected to the new network this year alone. Armrosgazprom, which is partly owned by Russia’s Gazprom giant, expects to have 260,000 subscribers by the start of 2005.
Thousands of other families made necessary payments ahead of this winter but are still not getting the fuel due to ongoing disputes between Armrosgazprom and as many as 50 contractors that install the gas infrastructure inside apartment blocks in Yerevan and outside it. According to Poghosian, their failure to clearly delineate their responsibilities is a key reason for the apparent lack of network safety.
“It is the contractors that are primarily responsible for the safety of the inner-building networks,” he said. “They are supposed to periodically visit and advise citizens. But 80 percent of them don’t do that.”
Poghosian added that the Union of Consumers conveyed its concerns to the government and Armrosgazprom in a letter two months ago but has still not received a reply. He said firefighters and neighborhood condominiums are also doing little to ensure minimum safety standards.
Incidentally, the government’s safety regulations dating back to Soviet years forbid use of gas for heating apartment buildings, a ban which is completely ignored by both the population and relevant authorities. Ashot Hovsepian, Armrosgazprom’s deputy director, admitted that the growing gas supplies are therefore fraught with serious risks.
“The degree of safety in those apartments that are not allowed to install heating appliances is extremely low,” he told RFE/RL. “The consequences are therefore unpredictable.”
Hovsepian said his company has suggested that the government decide which types of gas heaters are safe to operate and amend those regulations accordingly. “This would make the oversight much easier,” he argued.