Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Ammonia Use and Safety in Calgary

On October 19, 2017 three people were killed following an ammonia leak at an ice arena in Fernie, British Columbia. This tragedy gave rise to some questions from the public and news stories emerged in Calgary on November 6, 2017 that sought to investigate the relative safety of Calgarians, especially those living next to large facilities that utilize ammonia as central to ice rink operations.

The City of Calgary operates facilities with refrigeration equipment with safety as the top priority. The City operates 12 arenas using ammonia. All City of Calgary arena staff are trained in best practices in working with refrigeration systems, preventative maintenance and emergency procedures. In the unlikely event of an ammonia leak, City of Calgary facilities are equipped with a multi-alarm system which is triggered when ammonia levels rise above normal.

In terms of overall safety, the Calgary Fire Department is actively involved with ammonia safety planning, prevention and has a dedicated Hazardous Materials Response Team of trained firefighters that can respond at any time to mitigate the situation.


According to Calgary Fire Department incident data, the overall incident trend on ammonia within Calgary has been a decreasing one with 12 of 20 incidents occurring 2012-2013, with two per year 2014-2016 and one incident in 2017 to date. Most were refrigeration issues at commercial or industrial facilities. There have been 3 incidents in the past 5 years in Calgary relating to ice rinks specifically, none involving casualties.



Apart from its own facilities, The City of Calgary does not manage, regulate or inventory ammonia at the sites where it is used: ammonia is not a municipal responsibility but is provincially and federally regulated. Notwithstanding, The City undertakes significant efforts on multiple fronts to ensure public safety, evidenced in part by the decreasing trend in ammonia incidents within Calgary.


The use and operation of ammonia is provincially and federally regulated and enforced. The City of Calgary operates facilities with refrigeration equipment with safety as the top priority. This includes working with all ammonia owners and operators by assisting with emergency response, prevention and planning on an ongoing basis. 

What are these safety measures?


Safety is our number one priority at all City of Calgary facilities. As part of our safety procedures, our staff monitor and conduct daily ammonia level checks as part of their duties. In addition, our staff also conduct regular safety drills. The City of Calgary also has emergency response plans in place for a variety of scenarios, including an ammonia leak.

Apart from its own facilities, The City of Calgary is not mandated to regulate or inventory ammonia at private sites. However, through working with the province and other regulatory and safety partners, the Calgary Fire Department helps ensure public safety on ammonia in three specific areas:
  • fire safety plans with building owners, including site visits and on-site training in collaboration with operators. 
  • inspections to comply with Alberta Fire Code. 
  • hazardous materials emergency response, as needed. 

What happens if there is a leak?


All City of Calgary arena staff are trained in best practices in working with refrigeration systems, preventative maintenance and emergency procedures. As part of our safety procedures, City facilities staff conduct daily ammonia level checks as part of their duties. In addition, staff also conduct regular safety drills. In the unlikely event of an ammonia leak, The City of Calgary facilities are equipped with a multi-alarm system which is triggered when ammonia levels rise above normal.


Have there been any leaks at these City-owned facilities in the past?


Yes, there have been three minor incidents in the past five years in Calgary relating to ice rinks specifically, none involved casualties. One of these three incidents occurred in July 2015 when an alarm indicated an elevated level of ammonia in the compressor room at Rose Kohn Arena. This was caused by a small release of gas. The City staff member followed safety procedures by shutting down the compressors. The emergency ventilation system was then turned on. As a safety precaution, our City staff member evacuated the few people in the arena. There were no injuries to citizens as a result of this incident.


What about ammonia at other facilities in Calgary?


It is expected that all building owners and operators follow safe handling and storage procedures, as per provincial and federal guidelines and regulations. Calgary Fire actively works with ammonia operators as part of its Fire Safety Plan program to assist with operator emergency response plans, which will often involve a site visit involving crews operating at the nearest local fire station as well as Calgary Fire’s Hazardous Materials Response Team. This promotes familiarization and helps the facility operators to understand why the information is important, and they can meet and work with their first responders. These plans also include other chemical storage or use information.


Why doesn’t The City track or enforce ammonia as a hazardous substance?


As a municipal body, The City of Calgary is not empowered to govern hazardous materials. The operation of ammonia refrigeration plants is regulated provincially by Municipal Affairs under the code “Pressure Equipment Safety Regulations” and more generally by Alberta Environment for larger installations. Design and operation of refrigeration plants is also regulated by Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standard. And above a specific quantity threshold, Environment Canada E2 Regulations prescribe detailed response plans. In effect, there are several layers of provincial and federal regulations for the operation of ammonia refrigeration plants. As a municipal organization, the Calgary Fire Department is not a regulator of controlled chemicals and products, so while we have awareness of where product is, we do not keep an inventory count of ammonia at industrial and facility sites in Calgary.


Is there an ammonia safety problem in Calgary?


Although the Calgary Fire Department cannot regulate the use or track inventory of ammonia in private facilities, calls responding to ammonia leaks are tracked. The overall incident trend on ammonia within Calgary has decreased with 12 of 20 reported leaks happening in 2012 and 2013, with two per year 2014-2016 and one incident in 2017 to date. Most were refrigeration issues at commercial or industrial facilities. None of these leaks involved casualties.


If I have questions related to a privately-owned ammonia operator, where can I find more information?


Any questions about those facilities must be directed to the respective facility. However, in accordance with the Emergency Management Act, The City of Calgary does not support reporting specifics on hazardous material volume or location. The Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) supports the restricted circulation of such information pertaining to where ammonia is stored, and the volumes at that site, due to security issues.

If you have any questions about City of Calgary facilities, please call 311.

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