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VANOC to provide HAZ MAT training, equipment

Sliding Centre to house large volume of hazardous chemical

By Alison Taylor

Olympic organizers will fund Whistler firefighters with hazardous material training and equipment in case of an ammonia leak at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

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 next fall.

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 Lower Mainland.

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 not public.

“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 with.”

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 weather.

“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 Treatment Plant.

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 documented.”

In its liquid form ammonia can cause frostbite and corrosive burns.

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.”