BC’s former boiler inspector says many arena boilers are “time bombs”

By: Korie Marshall

The British Columbia Safety Authority has been investigating and analyzing 16 incidents involving the release of ammonia from refrigeration systems across the province since 2011. Now there is one more, a release of ammonia at the Robson Valley Recreation Centre in McBride in the early morning hours of Jan. 24th.

The Safety Authority is an independent organization mandated to oversee the safe installation and operation of technical systems and equipment in BC, including boiler and refrigeration systems like those used in local rinks. The Safety Authority is responsible for issuing permits, licences and certificates for the systems and also for enforcement, education and research.

A report from the Safety Authority on Jan. 16th, 2015 says that most of the 16 leaks under investigation are associated with recreation facilities such as arenas. “The lessons learned from these investigations will be used for a number of BCSA initiatives to prevent further ammonia releases and to raise awareness of this hazard,” says the report.

The Goat was contacted on Monday by Lou Roussinos, former Chief Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspector for the province. Almost 70 now, Roussinos has made a short film called “Is there a time bomb in our building?” He says he still worries and sees the accident rates increasing.

“Someone will be paying the price, heavy as it is,” said Roussinos in his email.

When released from a refrigeration system ammonia vaporizes into a toxic gas. It is very corrosive and exposure may result in chemical-type burns to skin, eyes and lungs as well as frostbite, since liquid ammonia’s boiling point is -33 degrees Celsius. Exposure in low concentrations can cause headaches, loss of the sense of smell, nausea and vomiting. Very high concentrations can be immediately fatal.

A news release on Saturday morning from the Village of McBride says that emergency services were notified of an ammonia leak at the rink shortly before 2:00 am. McBride’s Emergency Response plan was implemented and a command centre established at the fire hall. Corporal Jay Grierson assumed the role of incident commander and representatives from the RCMP, McBride Fire Department, BC Ambulance Service, Commercial Vehicle Safety Enforcement, Ministry of Highways, Lakes District Maintenance, Robson Valley Search and Rescue, and the Village Office were coordinated with regular briefings.

A containment area was established in the immediate area of the rink, bounded by Highway 16, First Avenue and Main Street. Approximately 130 residents were evacuated from the containment area and Airport Road by McBride Volunteer Fire Department. No injuries were reported. A reception center was set up for the evacuees at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Lamming Pit Road, and emergency support services had food and beverages brought in.

A Ministry of Environment officer was brought in from Prince George and conducted testing throughout the containment area. By about 9:00 am, the evacuation order was lifted as zero levels of ammonia were detected. Residents returning to the area were asked to open windows and take other measures to ventilate their homes, and asked to immediately contact authorities if they detected ammonia in their homes.

The cause of the leak has not yet been announced, but staff from the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George reported to the Village on Saturday morning that the leak has been contained and there is no danger of future leaks.

The Regional District has not yet responded to questions from the Goat about how the leak happened, how it was detected, and how it has been repaired, but a vehicle from the Safety Authority was parked outside the arena on Monday.

A Midget minor hockey tournament scheduled at the rink was cancelled. Coach Brady Knezacek says they are trying to reschedule it for sometime in March.