Wrong kind of smell upsets the gasman

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In one of the more surreal moves of recent years, the company which pipes gas round Britain wants to remove the artificial smell, added to make people aware of its presence, so that fewer engineers will be needed on call-outs for suspected leaks.

But Transco, the British Gas supply subsidiary which has hatched the alleged plan, denied yesterday that its scheme had anything to do with job losses although it conceded that it may well reduce the pong quotient.

Officials of Unison, the public service union, became aware of the decision when the company alluded to the scheme in a meeting this week to discuss 2,500 redundancies among the engineers.

A document shown to the union said that the artificial smell added to the odourless North Sea gas was to be reduced to the "minimum level to achieve customer awareness and recognition". While the old town gas had a satisfactory stench of its own, the new supply needed an additive to ensure that leaks could be detected.

Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of Unison, told TUC delegates in Brighton that lives would be put at risk if Transco went ahead with the strategy. Mike Jeram, the union's head of energy, added: "When water leaks you get wet, when gas leaks you are dead."

Sue Slipman, director of the Gas Consumers' Council, said she was worried about the plan: "This clearly has implications for safety standards and we shall be seeking an urgent meeting with Transco. Even if it is scientifically justified it represents a worsening of standards."

A statement from Transco contended that its intention to reduce the levels of "odorant" had nothing to do with costs. It was conducting a review of the malodorous chemical added to gas, but its intention was to improve safety. Transco was required by legislation to inject odorant into gas so that its characteristic smell can be identified anywhere in the country.

"Too much odorant will give rise to unnecessary gas call outs so diverting resources from the source of real escapes. This could endanger life and property and would be completely contrary to Transco's safety standards."

British Gas cuts, page 19