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. SD20 reports indicate a string of incidents dating back at least a year.
SD20 superintendent Bill Ford says that at no time has the safety of students or staff been put at risk, but the local teachers’ union has expressed a lack of confidence due to the numerous incidents.
In the spring of 2018, a teacher brought forward a concern over the fact children could climb on the outdoor gas meter at the school. A FortisBC technician assessed the situation and recommended a cage be constructed around the meter. However, it would be quite some time before the cage was actually built.
According to SD20 documents, a report of a gas smell was made Dec. 5, 2018.
The documents state: “Later that day, 911 and the maintenance department were called and the building was evacuated. A gas bleed valve was determined to be the culprit.”
Then over a weekend on Jan. 5, 2019, employees noticed the smell of natural gas in the gymnasium and photocopy room. A text was sent to a maintenance supervisor — but it turned out the employees had the wrong number and the supervisor was not notified immediately.
On Jan. 17, a teacher again smelled gas. FortisBC and maintenance were again called, and this time a regulator on the roof was discovered to be malfunctioning.
On Jan. 24, gas was smelled near the school’s entrance and a leak was detected at the main valve.
On Feb. 10, the smell of gas near the entrance was once again reported, but no leak was found.
All of the above incidents were included in one incident report from February 2019. Another incident occurred in late March and then again on April 15.
In the April incident, 911 was called and the building was evacuated. A small leak was detected at the main valve and two HVAC units were found to be experiencing “minimal leaking.”
But the report also 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.
SD20 manager of safety and wellness Julie Cole confirmed that finding.
“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,’” she said.
Cole has only been on the job for about two years and her 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.
But a lack of consistent reporting and inspections are also cited in the report as contributing causes. In addition, 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.
The Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union became concerned enough about the situation that they asked WorkSafeBC and Technical Safety BC 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.
“This has become an incredibly frustrating situation to deal with for our members because of the uncertainty about school safety.”
Both FortisBC and SD20 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.”
Vice-principal wearing gas monitor
Adding to that uncertainty is the fact the vice-principal at the school 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.
Record keeping issues
With so many incidents of gas smells, the union wonders why it took their complaints to bring in outside help.
“Why are we calling WorkSafe, why are we calling Technical Safety?” asked Davidoff.
The findings of WorkSafeBC dealt with investigating “incidents with high potential for serious injury,” reporting and record keeping.
Issues with the district’s inspection report forms were cited, and form modifications were ordered.
“If we didn’t do what we did, we still would not have the processes in place, we still wouldn’t know that none of the HVAC units on the roof were to code — we wouldn’t know any of this,” added Davidoff.
Cole acknowledges there have been issues with the district’s record keeping procedures and that while maintenance work orders were marked as fulfilled, records of what was actually done were not always kept.
“We didn’t have a great system for documenting what had been done over the years,” she said.
“One of the best things that has come out of all of these incidents is that we have a better system and we are using it better, so we are documenting exactly what is being done on work orders and will have a permanent record.
“I think it will help with transparency as well.”
Cole says the district 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.
School fails inspection
Technical Safety BC, the organization in charge of overseeing the safe installation and operation of technical systems and equipment, visited the school in March. The site failed the inspection.
Modulating gas valves had been added to the HVAC units at the school and SD20 was ordered to remove them from Castlegar Primary and any other SD20 building where “modulating valves may have been added to any appliance that is not certified to operate with these valves … These appliances must be returned to their original certified state.”
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.
Parent communication concerns
The union also takes issue with the lack of communication between the district and parents at the school.
The first time a letter went out to parents was after the April 15 incident, and Davidoff says that came about at 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.
“We will not minimize these occurrences and we will not jeopardize the health and safety of our students and staff,” said superintendent Ford in the letter.
But 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. It is about not getting full disclosure to parents,” he said.
“It is about accountability, transparency, full disclosure and communication with all stakeholders.”
Safety procedures questioned
The union also has a problem with one aspect of the district’s newly established protocols for gas leaks at the school.
The procedure requires a teacher to first report to a supervisor when they smell gas. The supervisor will then call 911 and FortisBC.
“When there is a gas leak, anybody should be able to call 911,” said Davidoff. “They should all be trained on the procedure.”
Davidoff says that because so many leaks have already occurred, anyone working in that building should have the right to call in a leak. He has concerns over potential delays when a supervisor is not on site.
“It’s inappropriate,” said Davidoff.
Even though notifying the local fire department in the case of a suspected gas leak is supposed to be standard procedure according to occupational health safety standards, the Castlegar Fire Department has only been called to the school a couple of times.
FortisBC recommends that once gas is smelled in any building, the building should be evacuated immediately and FortisBC or 911 should be called.
Training and maintenance plans
Cole says SD20 is also 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.
The district will also work on setting up preventative maintenance schedules.
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.
“We have been talking about this for quite some time,” said Cole. “Because we are required to show that documentation as per WorkSafe. We need to make sure we have documented inspections that are part of a preventable maintenance program.
“This has been good for checking our processes and updating our procedures.”
Davidoff says he hopes the saga with gas leaks at Castlegar Primary 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.