Workers Warn Of More Deadly Disasters

KIEV, Ukraine -- The nation's obsolete infrastructure -- including natural gas, water and sewage pipes -- is a time bomb that could kill at any time. Natural gas workers have gone on strike in Kyiv to warn that more than half of the nation’s natural gas pipelines are in such bad shape that they could explode at any time.

Up to 5,000 gas workers are rallying outside National Commission of Energy Regulation and Cabinet of Ministers demanding wage and tariff increase.

Demanding a cash injection to replace the aging infrastructure, several thousand trade union members from all over the country gathered near the Cabinet of Ministers on May 13 and May 14. They dragged with them samples of outdated pipes that still feed Ukrainian homes with gas.

The risk of everyday living in Ukraine, the workers who should know best said, is high and growing.

“No one is safe,” said Ivan Yarovyi, head of the trade unions of gas companies. “Work is under way to fix the gas transit system which flows gas to Europe. Thinking about European security, we forget about our own people. It’s getting out of control when 60 percent of our pipelines need replacement. They may work for a few more years or surprise us [with a blast] tomorrow.”

The protests were heated up by a gas blast in an apartment complex in the Lviv Oblast town of Socrat earlier this month. It left two people injured and a dozen homeless, adding to the long list of casualties from fires and explosions. The Ministry of Emergency reported 73 deaths from these type of accidents in the first three months of 2009 alone. Another 100 people suffered injuries from breaks of obsolete utility lines over the same period.

Who should modernize these pipes is a tricky question. Lines delivering gas belong to the state by law. But private companies are allowed to lease them out. As a result, entrepreneurs are reluctant to fix infrastructure they don’t own. The national gas company, Naftogaz Ukraine, controls the monopoly but so far has failed to encourage its leaseholders to invest.

Geologists and utility sector workers compare the risk of living in Ukraine to a time bomb.

Central Kyiv, including the so-called Khrushchevka districts built in the 1950s and early 1960s, boasts not only historical facades but pipes old enough for museum displays. With obsolete water heaters and gas pumps, pre-war and some after-war houses are often shaken up by new construction sites in their neighborhood.

Water utilities are another source of alarm.

Before the May 9 Victory Day, Pechersk district -- known as one of the most expensive and posh boroughs in Kyiv -- turned into a miniature Venice when water pipes gave out. Flowing in ankle-high streams of water, plumbers patched leaks in the pipeline to nine houses and the General Prosecutor’s Office.

A few weeks prior to the accident, the municipal water and waste management company Kyivvodokanal warned of a looming disaster. The city’s obsolete water and sewer system is in danger of collapse, Vyacheslav Bind, the head of the company, said in April. “I mean we can patch the pipes or replace bearings, but the equipment we have is in a critical state.”

Experts say that if the notorious sewage collector located on the way to Boryspil airport breaks down, not only Kyiv but dozens of other cities along the Dnipro River will have to be evacuated.

Geologist and member of the National Academy of Architects, Volodymyr Nudelman, said that water system breaks occur every hour in the capital. “Kyiv is the richest city in Ukraine but there are so many danger zones here,” said Nudelman.

The quality of water is also unsafe. “The water is being disinfected with chlorine, which is a very dangerous carcinogenic substance and has been discontinued in developed countries,” Nudelman said.

According to the plan of Kyiv’s development, water was supposed be treated by ozone instead of chlorine by 2010. However, the plan is still only on paper, said Nudelman.

Authorities continue dozing through numerous alarm bells set off by exploding, cracking and hissing pipes.

When gas workers hit the streets a year ago in May to call on government to step in, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko ordered an immediate inspection in the gas sector.

“Ukrainian gas networks are completely destroyed. People get Hr 600-800 in wages and only 65 percent of the required workforce is employed. We are living in a powder keg,” Tymoshenko said, during the meeting with heads of city administrations and gas companies last year. “In a month, I want to see a plan of reconstruction and modernization of gas routes.”

Tired of waiting for this plan, trade unions staged the May 13-14 protest in hopes of being heard again. They suggest doubling gas transport fees up to Hr 16 per month for an average consumer. “A bottle of vodka costs Hr 20,” labor leader Yarovyi said.

Fed up with empty promises, many residents seem more likely to choose a bottle of vodka than to pay extra for leaking taps. Sadly, it may require a higher death toll before government, private businesses and consumers figure out who will pay for their own security.

Source: Kyiv Post