A series of gas leaks at Castlegar Primary School over a number of months has turned into a saga that has kept School District 20 maintenance workers busy and left the local teachers’ union frustrated.
FortisBC says it has been called to the school 12 times in the last three months, but problems with reoccurring gas smells and gas equipment go farther back than that. School district reports indicate a string of incidents dating back at least a year.
It started in spring 2018 when a teacher was worried that kids could climb on an outdoor gas meter at the school.
In December of that same year, the first smell of gas was reported.
Emergency services were called, the school was evacuated and a gas bleed valve was determined to be the cause of the smell.
In January 2019, there were three reports of natural gas smells.
In the three months that followed, another incident was reported each month.
Some incidents had a cause – a regulator, a leaky main valve and HVAC units – but others didn’t seem to.
A report states that as the investigation progressed and formal witness statements were gathered, more occurrences were identified and there had been reports over many years of concerns about gas smells.
“As we began to investigate, it was reported that: ‘It has always been like this. We have always smelled natural gas off and on for over 10 years,’” school district manager of safety and wellness Julie Cole said.
Cole has only been on the job for about two years, and the position is new, so she says she doesn’t know why those earlier incidents weren’t reported and recorded.
Cole says the fact the building is over 50 years old and also has aging equipment is a major part of the problem.
The lack of consistent reporting and inspections are also cited in the report as contributing causes. Communication issues and lack of training were cited as “substandard conditions.”
SD20 says it is not sure how many times gas leaks have been detected because consistent records were not kept.
Regardless, the situation is now so uncertain the vice-principal has been wearing a gas monitor for the last three to four months.
Cole says since the supervisor is in and out of the building all day and in all areas of the building, the district thought it was a good way to detect any leaks that may have been missed.
Because the leaks have been so intermittent, the district plans to continue using the monitor until the end of the school year.
“If there is any indication the building is not safe, we want to address it,” said Cole.
The Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union became concerned enough about the situation that they asked regulating authorities to look at the problem.
“We are very concerned about the numerous gas leaks,” said union president Andy Davidoff. “The orders from WorkSafe and Technical Safety BC point to equipment that isn’t up to code, and processes with respect to reporting that are not being followed in accordance with WorkSafe regulations and that is very concerning for us.
In March, the school failed an inspection from Technical Safety BC, the group in charge of overseeing the safe installation and operation of technical systems and equipment
Modulating gas valves had been added to the HVAC units at the school and the district was ordered to remove them from any building where “modulating valves may have been added to any appliance that is not certified to operate with these valves.”
Problems with the school’s boiler were also cited as well as issues with rough piping. The district was ordered to inspect all gas piping and appliances at the school and to repair as needed. They were also ordered to paint all of the black iron gas pipe on the exterior of the building.
The order stated that all appliances should be serviced yearly at the minimum and repaired immediately should any issues be found.
But FortisBC and the school district assert the building is safe. But Davidoff says with the number of leaks and FortisBC visits to the site, doubts about safety have crept in.
“It is stressful for everyone at Castlegar Primary,” he said. “We do not want to be alarmist … but there is obviously something wrong when you have this number of gas leaks … It is the uncertainty that is very concerning.”
With so many incidents, union wonders why it took their complaints to bring in outside help.
The findings of WorkSafeBC cited “incidents with high potential for serious injury,” reporting and record keeping.
Modifications for the district’s inspection report forms were ordered, and Cole says they will roll out a new safety software system by the start of the new school year. There will be a switch from a paper-based system to a digital system with all records, investigation reports and related documents in one spot.
The union also wants to ensure that anyone can report a gas leak. Currently, a teacher must tell a supervisor who will then call 911 and FortisBC.
Davidoff worries that now, if a supervisor isn’t on site then there’s nothing a teacher can do.
“It’s inappropriate,” said Davidoff.
Parent communication concerns
The teachers union is worried that parents didn’t hear about the gas leaks until one of the last incidents in April – and even then, Davidoff said it was only with the union’s insistence.
The letter references “nuisance” smells and states the detection of the smell of natural gas at Castlegar Primary has been ongoing, with several such occurrences over the last number of weeks.
It lists the different inspections that have occurred at the site, but does not include detailed findings of those inspections or a list of repairs that have been made.
Davidoff remains concerned about the district’s response.
“This is no longer a safe school issue — it is about the absolute lack of process in terms of how reports are filed, the ongoing leaks, in terms of downplaying what a gas leak is — calling it a nuisance,” he said.
“It is about not getting full disclosure to parents.”
Training and maintenance plans
Cole says the district is working on providing consistent health and safety training for all its employees and will roll out specific training modules in September. Training sessions will look at safety issues specific for each building, incident investigation procedures, hazard identifications, risk assessments and other related topics.
Cole says there has not been a formal schedule in place and maintenance was more on a basis of dealing with issues as they arose but that the district will set one up.
Davidoff hopes the saga with gas leaks at the school is over and his members can begin to feel safe in their work place again.
Ideally, the union would like to see the government tear the 52-year-old school down and build a new one, he says, but they realize that is probably many years in the future.