Some industry experts are asking questions about the staffing and inspections of arenas using ammonia refrigeration systems, months after a leak killed three men at an ice rink in southeastern British Columbia.
Ammonia is inherently dangerous and should be not used in skating and curling rinks, said Lou Roussinos, who spent decades inspecting refrigeration and boiler systems across B.C.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful refrigerant, but it’s dangerous,” Roussinos said. “It’s highly toxic, it will kill you in less than 30 seconds in high concentrations, and we know that.”
Last October, three men died following a leak of the colourless gas at a rink in Fernie. The victims included City of Fernie employees Wayne Hornquist and Lloyd Smith and refrigeration contractor Jason Podloski of Turner Valley, Alta.
The city previously said in a Facebook post that the arena was closed for “emergency maintenance” the morning of the leak.
Several agencies continue to investigate, including RCMP and WorkSafeBC.
A history of leaks
The case is believed to be the first fatal ammonia leak in Canada, but the gas has seeped out of refrigeration systems before, causing injuries in several cases.
A report from Technical Safety B.C., which oversees the installation and operation of technical systems like refrigeration and boiler systems, shows there were 40 reported “refrigerated release incidents” involving ammonia across the province between 2007 and 2015.
WATCH BELOW: Aaron McArthur looks at the ongoing risks of ammonia in arenas
The report says 10 of the incidents included injuries.
Two experts in the industry say more inspections and stricter staffing requirements are needed to protect against leaks.
Facilities using dangerous chemicals like ammonia used to be checked annually, said Roussinos, former head inspector with the B.C. Safety Authority, Technical Safety B.C.’s predecessor.
“Now there’s very few inspections being conducted. You can go from place to place in the province and most places will tell you they haven’t seen an inspector in years,” he said.
A spokeswoman for B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs, which is responsible for recreational facilities, said in an email that annual inspections have not been required since the Safety Standards Act was enacted in 2003.
Janice Lee, director of safety oversight at Technical Safety B.C., said the agency does inspections when equipment is installed and conducts “periodic assessments” throughout the lifespan of the system.
Timing of the assessments is determined using a “risk-based inspection criteria” that includes factors such as the equipment’s age and whether the building is a public space, she said.
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There’s no national standard for how often ammonia refrigeration plants in ice rinks are inspected.
Ontario can require as little as six months between checkups, depending on the previous report, while facilities in Alberta can go as long as five years between inspections.
In B.C., when “imminent safety issues” are found during an inspection, they are dealt with immediately on site, Lee said. Other “non-compliance” issues may be dealt with in a variety of ways, including a safety officer following up with the facility’s operator by phone or email.
Signs of trouble in Fernie
Reports obtained by The Canadian Press under the Freedom of Information Act show the B.C. Safety Authority inspected the Fernie Memorial Arena six times between September 2007 and when the fatal leak occurred on Oct. 17, 2017.
Technical Safety B.C. said in a statement the agency was advised that all of the items noted during the latest inspection in December 2014 had been addressed.
WATCH BELOW: Coverage of the Fernie ammonia leak on Globalnews.ca
Reports filed between September 2007 and December 2014 noted several issues at the arena, including leaking, corroded and uncertified equipment, and non-compliance with required staffing levels. In the final report, a safety officer made note of potential issues with a compressor, oil fill pumps, an ammonia sensor and staffing on statutory holidays.
Liz Rhodes, a City of Fernie spokeswoman, declined to comment on the inspection reports, citing ongoing investigations into the fatal leak.
Keeping an ice rink safe requires more than just inspections, said Lee, with Technical Safety B.C.
People who own and operate the rinks have a responsibility to make sure maintenance is kept up, emergency measures are in place, and the facilities are properly staffed.
“All those things add up to the safety of the equipment as well as the overall site for the public,” she said.
A former inspector in Manitoba said he’s concerned those measures aren’t always being followed.
“These accidents should not happen,” said Ray Kolbuch. “We’re not being proactive enough with these plants.”
He said he’s concerned that arena staff don’t always have the training necessary to keep a rink safe.
The province needs to make sure that trained individuals are working whenever an indoor rink is occupied, he said.
Manitoba’s Office of the Fire Commissioner, which oversees ice arenas, said in a statement that staffing requirements vary depending on the size of the refrigeration plant and what type of additional safety controls are part of the facility.
“All refrigeration plants are required to be inspected annually under The Steam and Pressure Plants Act. Inspections are done across all of Manitoba an in each case the plant owner is responsible to ensure that they are meeting staffing requirements. These requirements are verified at the time of inspection,” the statement said.
Technical Safety B.C. put out a safety order last December, reminding rink operators of staffing requirements for rinks with ammonia refrigeration plants.
“Technical Safety B.C. has determined that a number of ammonia refrigeration plants within the scope of this safety order are currently being operated by person(s) that are not appropriately qualified,” the bulletin said.
Better oversight needed
Ultimately, whoever owns an ice rink’s refrigeration plant is responsible for its inspections, maintenance and operations, said Terry Piche, technical director with the Ontario Recreational Facilities Association, whose more than 6,000 members operate and manage recreation facilities in municipalities.
Often that person ends up being the mayor or chief administrator of a municipality, but municipal officials often have little idea how a plant works, he added.
“Sometimes the operators are qualified to run the plant, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they get enough resources, sometimes they don’t.”
Complicating the issue is the fact that Canada’s recreation facilities are aging, Piche said, noting that in Ontario, they’re estimated to be, on average, between 50 and 60 years old. The “natural life expectancy” of a recreation facility is about 32 years, he said.
He compared rec centres to old cars, saying regular maintenance and proper operation can help extend the life cycles, but even preventative maintenance only goes so far.
“I can give it a coat of paint, maybe a new roof, windows and doors. But the veins of the buildings are still 50 or 60 years old. That’s really the challenge that’s going on from coast to coast.”
A new refrigeration plant for a single-rink community arena can cost between $600,000 and $900,000, Piche said. “Most municipalities can’t afford it.”
WATCH BELOW: Temporary outdoor ice rink opens in Fernie
Oversight agencies don’t have the resources to police how facilities are run day-to-day, so instead they rely on operators to comply with the rules and be honest, Piche said.
“Really what needs to happen is the commitment to do the checks, balance and maintenance by the operators and owners. And it will greatly reduce the opportunity for any similar event (to the deaths in Fernie) to happen.”
Piche disagreed with the notion that ammonia refrigeration plants are inherently dangerous. Artificial ice rinks operated across Canada for more than 100 years before the first “catastrophic event” last fall, he said.
“Shifting to another refrigerant doesn’t mean you’re going to be any safer.”
Roussinos, the former B.C. inspector, said some municipalities have already moved to replace their ammonia refrigeration systems with what he considers to be safer alternatives, like freon or carbon dioxide.
He’d like to see B.C.’s government require all the remaining ammonia systems to be replaced, too.
“This government has an opportunity to do it … they can do the right thing this time. Take ammonia out of the places where there’s young children playing hockey or old men like me go curling.”