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A report by an organization that oversees the safe installation of technical equipment in British Columbia pinpoints a decision to keep operating with aging equipment for an ammonia leak at an ice rink in Fernie that killed three workers last year.

Jeff Coleman, the director of risk and safety knowledge for Technical Safety BC, says ammonia was used to chill brine at the Fernie Memorial Arena and traces of the gas were found in the liquid as early as the summer of 2017.

Coleman says that indicated a small leak was somewhere in the system, but a decision was made to monitor the leak in the aging chiller system, which had been recommended for replacement in 2010.

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Barricades restrict access to the Fernie Memorial Arena in Fernie, B.C., the sight of a poisonous ammonia leak that claimed the lives of three arena workers, on Oct.18, 2017.Lauren Krugel

The report says the chilling process was put back into operation on Oct. 16, but the pinhole leak, caused by corrosion along a seam in one tube of the chiller, allowed pressurized ammonia to seep into the liquid, bursting the pipe and venting large amounts of the deadly gas.

Wayne Hornquist and Lloyd Smith, who worked for the city, and Jason Podloski of Turner Valley, Alta., were killed as they investigated the ammonia leak in the early hours of Oct. 17.

The City of Fernie says it was operating with an approved certification for its cooling system at the time of the leak and its employees were appropriately trained.

It says the report found there was no evidence that anyone was aware of any safety risk associated with the continued operation of the chiller, and the city’s maintenance plan was consistent with others in the province.

“As a city we value and are committed to the health and safety of our employees and community members,” Mayor Mary Giuliano said in a news release.

“Despite working with an approved certification for our system at the time of the incident, today’s report points to opportunities to further improve safety standards for arena refrigeration plants, not only for Fernie but for communities across British Columbia, so no one else will need to experience a similar tragedy.”

CIMCO, the refrigeration company Podloski worked for, could not immediately be reached from comment on the report.

Fernie declared a seven-day state of emergency, and an evacuation order covering 95 residents of 55 homes near the arena was in effect for nearly a week.

Ammonia is a colourless and toxic gas if inhaled, and it’s used in mechanical refrigeration systems such as those in ice rinks.

Technical Safety BC is an independent organization that administers the Safety Standards Act in British Columbia.

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