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The Globe and Mail

Bylaw would limit location of propane facilities

Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases in Downsview exploded in August, 2008.

Charla Jones

Two years ago, thousands of people in Toronto's Downsview neighbourhood learned firsthand the downside to having a propane facility as your next-door neighbour.

If the city has its way, no other Toronto residents will.

Plans being put forward in the city's mammoth harmonized zoning bylaw, which goes to council later this month, would require industrial propane facilities to be at least 300 metres away from residential areas. While existing sites would be allowed to remain, the restriction would cover any new or expanded ones.

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"Arising out of the Sunrise incident, the zoning bylaw addresses the issue of propane safety in employment areas," reads a staff report on the bylaw. "When located close to sensitive uses such as dwellings, schools or nursing homes, propane storage, handling and transfer poses a greater safety risk."

The man behind a provincially ordered probe into Ontario's propane-safety record says the change is probably a good idea.

"Operators need to calculate whether the population will be affected by an explosion," Michael Birk said. "And if they are, they need to take special protection measures to make sure these incidents don't happen.

"And if some facilities are in really heavily populated areas, maybe they should move."

Prof. Birk is department head of mechanical and materials engineering at Queen's University, and is an expert in "boiling liquid expanding vapour explosions" - the same kind that ripped through Sunrise Propane's facility in August, 2008, lighting up the northern Toronto sky and blanketed the surrounding area in charred metal and asbestos.

He says he's pleased with the way the province is implementing 40 recommendations his panel put forward in late 2008. Whether these have an impact on safety, however, remains to be seen. "It will be in the details of how our recommendations are implemented," he said. "And that I haven't seen yet."

Prof. Birk noted that although Ontario's propane-safety record is on par with other provinces, it lags behind places like the Netherlands, where facilities deemed too close to residential areas have been told to move.

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A 367-page Ontario Fire Marshal's report, leaked piecemeal this week and obtained in full by The Globe and Mail, labels the massive blast an accident but notes that the hose failure and propane leak behind the explosion took place during an illegal truck-to-truck propane transfer. Sunrise Propane had been given a cease and desist order about this in November, 2006; a follow-up inspection six months later found it to be following that rule.

More tellingly, the report notes, the series of explosions was exacerbated by conditions that are technically permitted - but perhaps shouldn't be.

The takeaway from that weighty document, says Chris Williams, who heads the office's fire investigations, is that things have to change before history repeats itself.

"This isn't just an explosion: This is an explosion that took people's lives … If we don't feed what we learn from and explore and investigate back into the program … then it all goes for naught," said Mr. Williams.

"I'm not suggesting [existing rules]are too lax, but I'm suggesting the technical depth to which our investigation went perhaps identified issues that, until you have an event of this scale, may not have been considered."

But a group speaking for the propane industry argues the Sunrise Propane explosion was a freak accident. If existing rules are followed, said Ontario Propane Association compliance director Gord Ellis, everything should be fine.

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"We really don't see the need for further distances. … The illegal activity that was detailed in the fire marshal's report is not representative of day-to-day activities of a typical propane facility. We really don't see the need for this," he said. "It's going to place unnecessary restrictions on an industry."

Sophia Aggelonitis, Ontario's Consumer Services Minister who oversees propane industry regulation, says she looks forward to reviewing any recommendations coming out of the fire marshal's report, but noted the province has already acted to make the industry safer.

"This was a tragic event - everyone in the province felt this," she said. "And the government acted quickly."

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