By Alison Taylor
Olympic organizers will fund Whistler firefighters with
hazardous material training and equipment in case of an ammonia leak at the Whistler
The centre will be home to one of the largest storehouses of
ammonia in North America. Roughly 150,000 pounds of the hazardous material,
used to cool the Olympic bobsled/luge track, will be delivered to the resort
In high concentrations the chemical will attack the eyes, nose,
lining of the mouth, armpits and groin areas during exposure.
“Our biggest concern from a fire perspective is a leak,” said
assistant fire chief Rob Whitton, adding that he believes the safeguards are in
place to mitigate the possibility of a leak.
To date there has never been an ammonia leak at any other bobsled track around the world.
The local fire department is not currently equipped to manage a hazardous material spill. They have HAZ MAT awareness training only.
“We don’t have the full encapsulating suits,” said Whitton. “We
do not have the training for operations level HAZ MAT so in our current
position we would be required to wait until an industry response team could
make themselves available.”
The closest team, he added, is an hour and half away in the
However, due to the high level of concern around a potential
leak the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic Games has decided
to upgrade both the training and the equipment of local firefighters. VANOC
will fund the initial costs and the Whistler Legacies Society will cover the
long-term operations costs.
“We’ll be providing equipment,” said Jan Jansen, VANOC’s
director of the Whistler Sliding Centre.
The sliding centre is located on Blackcomb Mountain, just above
Base 2. A makeshift set of trailers there is the command centre for the $100
million track, designed to be one of the fastest and steepest of the 15
comparable tracks around the world.
Like the majority of tracks around the world, the Whistler
track will have liquid ammonia running through pipes underneath the concrete to
keep the ice surface cold.
Ammonia is a common refrigerant, used in ice rinks, food
processing plants and bobsled/luge tracks.
“The efficiency of ammonia far surpasses any other refrigerant
that’s on the market,” said David Baranowski, one of the top engineers on site.
“And it’s commercially available and not very expensive.”
Because it is classified as a hazardous material, however,
VANOC is required to investigate all possibilities of a system failure at the
track. In July 2005 a report was produced entitled “Off Site Consequence
Analysis for the Whistler Sliding Centre, Bobsled Luge Track.” The report is
“It would contemplate as much as possible, even to the point of
being ridiculous, in order to make sure we can effect design and make a very
safe operation,” said Craig Lehto, VANOC’s director of sliding sports.
“There’s a lot of different organizations involved in making
sure that this is exactly what we’d like to see developed here so it’s a good
community asset… So it’s a facility that the community can be comfortable
Whistler has a plan in place for a worse case scenario involving a major dump of the system at the sliding centre.
Whitton said an evacuation plan of the homes, and other
businesses within 500 metres of the refrigeration plant at the base of the
sliding track would be implemented immediately with help from the RCMP.
The response and action plan depends on a number of factors,
such as the amount of ammonia released, the direction of the wind and the
“It’s just something that we keep in the back of our minds so you’re aware it’s there, do your job, but be advised that at any time if something does happen, we’ll be notifying people to pull out of the area,” said Whitton.
Baranowski, who like Lehto was involved in the sliding track
for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, said there are safety measures
in place to manage a large release of the anhydrous ammonia, both in its liquid
and gas form.
“Inside the (refrigeration) plant where the pumps are and the
compressors are, there’s potential that one of those pieces of machinery could
fracture or break and could leak and have a spray of ammonia,” he said.
That’s why there are sensitive vapour detectors in place within
the plant designed to sound the alarm bells in the event of a leak. The plant
also has a built-in containment pit to capture all 150,000 pounds of liquid
ammonia should it release at once.
Outside the plant, the piping which carries the liquid ammonia
is buried inside the concrete track.
Baranowski said it’s all made of welded pipe. There are no
flanges or places where is could leak.
“It’s very safe, it’s solid welding,” he said. “We have inspectors
all the time checking all the welds… (to) take out the human factor.”
Should a large leak occur outside the plant, creating a cloud
of ammonia gas, this would trigger the evacuation plan. Local firefighters
would be able to respond and either shut off the valve where the leak is or
knock down the ammonia cloud with a fine fog spray.
There was an ammonia leak at Meadow Park several years ago. At
least two firefighters were taken to the clinic to treat minor skin irritation
due to the ammonia exposure.
The Whistler rink uses 1,100 pounds of ammonia.
Whitton said getting the HAZ MAT suits will not only help
firefighters address the ammonia at the sliding centre and the ice rink but
also respond to any potential chlorine spills or leaks at the Wastewater
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety states
that ammonia gas is a severe respiratory tract irritant.
Brief exposure to high concentrations of the gas can cause
pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal accumulation of fluid in the lungs.
“Numerous cases of fatal ammonia exposure have been reported,”
states the CCOHS website, “but actual exposure levels have not been well
In its liquid form ammonia can cause frostbite and corrosive
This underscores the importance of having a fire department
fully equipped to manage a worse case scenario.
“There’s a million what ifs when you talk about things like
this,” said Lehto. “There’s a very, very good safety record for these
facilities because of these things that are designed into them.”
When asked if community members should be worried, Baranowski said: “Just be aware that it’s here.”