Tragedy in B.C.

As I write this, it is just over a week since a deadly ammonia leak at Memorial Arena in Fernie, B.C. killed three workers. At this point, little is known about what caused the accident.

“Something went terribly wrong,” Fernie chief administrative officer Norm McInnes told reporters. Killed were two city employees and a refrigeration technician from Cimco Refrigeration in Calgary, called out after an alarm went off at the rink at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17.

Ammonia refrigeration systems are not new; they have been used in arenas for many years and in industrial applications since the 1930s. And, as we have reported in this magazine previously, the use of ammonia in refrigeration systems is expanding because it has excellent refrigerating qualities along with zero global warming potential (GWP) and zero ozone depleting potential (ODP).

In the fight against climate change and global warming, ammonia is seen as a solution. The fact that it is considerably lower cost than many other refrigerants makes it attractive to building and facility owners too.

In its refrigerant state, ammonia is a liquid. It turns to a gas when released to the atmosphere and it is toxic, particularly so when released in a confined space. The industry takes great care to avoid leaks and they are uncommon. Deaths are rare; in my research I couldn’t find another case in recent years. In one widely publicized incident, Canadian Olympic figure skater Karen Magnussen, silver medalist at the 1972 Winter Olympics, was permanently disabled by an ammonia leak at a Vancouver arena in November, 2011.

Obviously, the design, construction and maintenance of ammonia refrigeration systems takes a great deal of care. The Fernie incident is being investigated and once the cause is known, it will provide guidance to prevent similar incidents in the future. Let’s hope that some politician doesn’t use this for political gain, resulting in ‘knee-jerk’ restrictions on the use of ammonia.

We feel for and would like to offer our condolences to the families of the victims in the Fernie incident. Tragedies like this shouldn’t happen.


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