Technical Safety BC has “zero tolerance” for ammonia leaks in arenas after three people died in Fernie in 2017. That’s why they are being cautious about the low-level leak that was discovered at the Alberni Valley Multiplex in early November, says Paige Hill, TSBC’s regional business leader for Vancouver Island.
“We have a zero tolerance for leaks. I know we can be challenged on that,” said Hill, who has been dealing with the Multiplex closure for TSBC. “Our collective goal is to ensure public safety.”
The City of Port Alberni and TSBC are taking criticism for the length of the closure, which started Nov. 3. Late Friday, Nov. 15, the TSBC issued a notice that the facility will be closed until further notice. The city has to satisfy a number of safety items before TSBC will allow them to reopen the Multiplex, Hill said.
The manufacturer of the ice refrigeration plant, Isotherm Inc., will be sending a representative to Port Alberni on Wednesday, Nov. 20 to examine the unit. The timing to reopen the facility now rests with the contractors, Hill said.
The closure has forced cancellation of several minor hockey tournaments, figure skating practices and the postponement or relocation of several Alberni Valley Bulldogs’ B.C. Hockey League games. Whether or not the annual Winter Wonderland skating festival will have to be cancelled to help rink users make up lost time remains in doubt.
This is not lost on Hill, who has close ties to Port Alberni. “I fully understand the enormity of what’s going on,” he said.
“I have an appreciation for the community of Port Alberni and its hardships over the years. We’re empathetic to what’s going on; we understand the revenue loss here.
“At the end of the day, safety oversight has to take precedence. Fernie taught us this.”
Three people died at an arena in Fernie, B.C. in 2017 after they were overcome by toxic fumes, which happened when their ice plant failed, causing a massive ammonia leak.
The leak at the AV Multiplex was nowhere near the same, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Tim Pley said. When the leak was discovered, the user group at the rink at the time was permitted to finish their activity before the facility was closed.
“It seems like we’re changing the goal posts, but we’re not,” Hill said.
“The learning from our collective experience is going to pay forward to other communities,” Hill said. “There will be a formal debrief on this and we will have formal recommendations just like we did from Fernie. There will be some further recommendations coming out of this to the industry at large.
“I’m just glad this didn’t turn into a Fernie.”
Port Alberni City Council, as with many other municipalities in the province, began looking at its ice refrigeration plant in 2017, following the Fernie deaths. Port Alberni’s ice plant was 17 years old at the time, so council started putting money aside for a replacement. A new ice plant was purchased and installed in April 2019, and the unit was pressure tested before being certified by Technical Safety BC, Pley said.
An ice refrigeration plant has two basic systems: a brine solution circulation system and an ammonia circulation system, which interface inside the chiller. A liquid refrigerant—in this case, ammonia—is used to draw heat out of the brine, and the brine is then moved into the rink, cooling the ice. This is called an indirect refrigeration system: the ammonia does not leave the mechanical room in the arena.
(In a direct cooling system, which is rarely used in public arenas, the liquid refrigerant—which can be ammonia or freon—is pumped through piping underneath a rink’s surface where the potential for a leak is greater.)
There are several differences between the new ice plant at the AV Multiplex and the ice plant that was in the Fernie arena, Pley explained. “It’s not an immersion ammonia system, it’s a spray ammonia system inside.
“Our system has a pressure relief system on the brine side as well. In Fernie, the brine system failed, pressurized (with ammonia leaking from the ammonia circulation system) and a brine pipe burst,” he said.
On Nov. 3, a small leak was discovered and a crack found in a weld in the new ice plant at the Multiplex. The city shut the facility down, had the weld repaired, and during a pressure test a second crack in the same weld was discovered. Once it was repaired, another pressure test revealed a total of nine sub-surface fissures, or tiny cracks, in the same weld.
“The ammonia system passed a pressure test after the weld repairs,” Pley said. “The brine system operates at low pressure, was not affected by the weld crack, and was therefore not pressure tested. If there were ammonia leaks out of view inside the chiller the brine solution would be contaminated with ammonia,” he added.
“Brine tests indicate no such leakage.”
The City of Port Alberni has three main requirements they need to satisfy before Technical Safety BC will consider signing off on a certificate of inspection: they must provide proof that the refrigeration plant has been shut down; provide a written, documented procedure for monitoring the plant when it is not in operation; and a fit-for-service assessment by the manufacturer of the entire ice plant unit.
Acuren Industrial Services’ metallurgic engineers performed a fit-for-service test on the welded repair but not the rest of the unit, “although non-destructive testing indicated that there were no issues with other welds,” Pley said.
Hill said TSBC clarified that they wanted a fit-for-service test of the whole ammonia system, or chiller. The manufacturer is also going to examine the entire installation of the ice plant, because they have some questions too, he said.
“More information coming in is showing there is a deeper issue here.”
Hill said TSBC has asked the manufacturer, which is from Arlington, Texas, for a list of other ice plants they have sold. “We want a list of other chillers in B.C. and Canada.”
The TSBC request for proof that the ice plant has been shut down is part of the safety order because it has not been decommissioned, and there may still be coolant present. Ammonia is safe at low levels, but accumulations of the gas can cause exposure to the public.
“We do not let our guard down,” Hill said. “We maintain the same rigour as if you’re operating.”
The same goes for the request for documentation: there are procedures that must be followed during a shutdown, and TSBC wants proof that the procedures were followed.
It’s the same as auditing the logbooks: the onus is on the duty holder, in this case the city, to provide proof of oversight.
“When we get this thing back up and running, we’re going to be better as a community because we’ve learned something,” Hill said.