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The gas disaster this week in Tel Aviv's Hatikva quarter revealed, according to the veteran gas companies, the culprits behind the safety anarchy in Israel's gas sector. The culprits are the pirate gas companies whose workers steal gas canisters in the dead of night from their rightful owners, fill them at secret sites in dark groves and install them in foreign workers' apartments at a quarter of the usual price.

The gas companies' representative in the Manufacturers Association hints at this opportune moment that the state-sponsored reform of the sector in the 1990s is the root of the evil.

The reform removed unnecessary entry barriers and allowed new gas companies to compete with the veteran ones. Praiseworthy competition led to gas prices for consumers dropping by dozens of percentage points.

Action must be taken against pirate companies and fly-by-night operations. There are enough safety regulations and they must be enforced, just as these regulations should be enforced in any business sector that has been breached by dangerous unlicensed operations.

But the safety failures in the gas sector are not only the bootleggers' doing.

The company that installed, without the fire department's permission, the gas valves at Tel Aviv eatery Giraffe Noodles Bar, which burned down in May in a fire caused by a gas leak, was a veteran, respected gas firm.

The gas company that installed the chimney on a gas heater in a Ramat Aviv apartment that emitted poison gas and killed the couple who lived there, was a major veteran gas company.

The state comptroller's report two months ago revealed that the gas companies for the most part do not conduct the safety checks required by law and the gas storage facilities in two-thirds of Israel's cities and towns are operating without licenses.

Safety in the gas sector, according to Haifa fire and rescue chief Moshe Ribak, also a member of the gas safety committee, is problematic due to the involvement of the gas companies. Ribak, who as part of his duties has handled and investigated hundreds of gas leaks, fires and explosions in which many people have been hurt, warns that gas company representatives cannot continue to sit on the gas safety committee or must be substantially outnumbered on the committee.

The regulatory committees should be completely public bodies, he says, "free of the influence of interested parties whose presence on the committees is a clear conflict of interest. If the gas companies were not on the committees, it would be possible to do far more in the safety field."

For instance, regulations for handling a gas leak determine that any complaint of a gas leak requires the companies to send a technician within 12 hours. It is difficult to explain why it takes 12 hours to get to a gas-leak site from the gas companies' Tel Aviv area control center at Pi Glilot, when an explosion could happen within minutes.

It is true most complaints are handled before the deadline, but still, why so much time? An intelligent guess: arriving on the scene in an hour or two requires more staff, more equipment, more vehicles and more costs for the gas companies.