Untrained disassembly and poor communication linked to fatal B.C. ammonia release

Journal of Commerce | The Canadian Press | January 26, 2023

VANCOUVER – The independent body that oversees the safety of technical systems and equipment in British Columbia has found a deadly ammonia leak near Kamloops last May was a tragedy that took years to unfold.

A report from Technical Safety BC says the release of a “significant amount” of ammonia happened May 26, 2022, at Arctic Glacier, an ice-making facility in an industrial park on the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc reserve in Kamloops.

The report says the refrigeration unit had been shut down in 2015 but the ammonia wasn’t removed and, over the years, miscommunication, staffing changes and then the failure to use a licensed refrigeration contractor to check for ammonia all contributed to the unexpected release.

One person died, two others were injured, the area around the plant had to be evacuated and nearby businesses were temporarily closed when the deadly gas was released as a crew began to dismantle the refrigeration system.

Technical Safety BC says workers thought the system had already been emptied but the release happened when a valve holding back pressurized ammonia for the entire system was opened.

The report makes three recommendations, including that a licensed contractor always be used when refrigeration equipment is shut down and disassembled, and that the Canadian Standards Association develop requirements for any work to decommission refrigeration systems.

Jeff Coleman, director of technical programs with Technical Safety BC, says the province’s safety system is built on the expectation that hazardous work is only completed by those with the necessary skills and knowledge.

“Unfortunately, when this equipment was shut down in 2015, the ammonia was not removed,” Coleman says in a statement accompanying the report. “Then in 2022, a licensed refrigeration contractor was not engaged to prepare the equipment for final disassembly.”

The statement says between the initial shutdown in 2015 and the release of gas in 2022, “organizational changes, unclear communication, and incorrect assessments, were all contributing factors to the ammonia not being removed.”

Previously cut piping and disconnected gauges showed the system was empty, says the report, and that “led to the incorrect assumption that the entire ammonia system was empty, despite ammonia being found the day before the incident.”

Technical Safety says any contractor licensed to perform regulated work in B.C. can be found through its online “contractor look-up tool.”