furnace dilly dally continues

The Yukon government has known for several years that many of the territory's oil-burning furnaces don't meet national building codes. It's also known that, in some cases, the shoddy state of these devices pose safety risks.

The Yukon government has known for several years that many of the territory’s oil-burning furnaces don’t meet national building codes. It’s also known that, in some cases, the shoddy state of these devices pose safety risks.

Yet the territory refused to take the matter seriously, until five Porter Creek residents died from carbon monoxide poisoning in January. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Yukon Party government was blinkered by its political instincts to stay out of the way of business until tragedy struck.

Last week, territorial politicians committed to preparing new legislation, forthcoming in 2013, to introduce rules about who can install, upgrade and maintain furnaces. That’s a good thing. But it’s a shame that it took five dead Yukoners to get this far.

Evidence began to pile up between 2007 and 2010, when Rod Corea, an oil-furnace expert with NRG Solutions, produced a series of reports for the Yukon Housing Corporation on the state of the territory’s furnaces. What he found was grim: of the 305 residential oil furnaces inspected by Corea, only four met the building code.

Corea’s reports made it clear that the territory’s means of regulating oil-burning furnaces, which heat most of the territory’s homes, is broken from top to bottom.

He found furnaces are being improperly installed and maintained, and inspectors, who are supposed to ensure furnaces meet the building code, aren’t catching these mistakes. These problems weren’t limited to old furnaces: new installations that Corea encountered were “as poor as, or worse than” old ones.

To Corea, the problem was obvious. There are no minimum standards to work as an oil-burner mechanic in the Yukon. He wanted to see that changed. But bureaucratic bosses – and presumably their political masters – weren’t interested.

Corea spelled out the potentially fatal consequences of these far-reaching problems. In a video that accompanied his final report, Corea issued this chilling warning: “Hopefully, you’ll be able to take action … in very short order, before something unfortunate happens.”

The government’s response? To bury the report and video from public view, lest it create any controversy. It only surfaced after the NDP Opposition got their hands on it in February.

This let’s-stick-our-heads-in-the-snowbank mentality was pervasive throughout the government’s handling of Corea’s reports, as shown by a ream of documents, obtained by the News through an access-to-information request, which we first reported in March.

“There are limits in which we can help,” wrote Dan Boyd, assistant deputy minister of community services, in an email on June 11, 2010. “Fully regulating the industry is not achievable at this time and it is not helpful to be continually pushing that button.”

Joanne Harach, a policy analyst with the Yukon Housing Corporation, disagreed. When she pressed the matter, according to one of her emails, Boyd threatened to “go to the premier and ministers in a way that would put Yukon Housing Corp. in a very negative light.”

Boyd insists he had been misunderstood. “What I am trying to do and will continue to try to do is to help YHC stay out of the bad light,” he wrote.

Harach wasn’t alone in sensing the foolishness of ignoring the problem. Cathy Cottrell, an adviser with the Energy Solutions Centre, posed this excellent question on June 3, 2010, as officials prepared a newspaper advertisement that reminded residents to keep their furnaces tuned-up: “Why are we recommending people get maintenance done when we know that maintenance is often done very poorly, and on top of that, the installation may need to be fixed first and we don’t necessarily have faith in the local capacity to fix the installation?”

No answer was forthcoming in the email trail. We’re sure these records only capture a glimpse of the bureaucratic infighting that occurred over Corea’s reports. But it’s clear that, in the end, it was the anti-regulation camp that won.

They argued that the government faced a chicken-and-egg conundrum: with so few furnace mechanics possessing nationally recognized credentials, new rules would put many out of work. Funny how that and other objections have been quietly retracted.

A report released last week by a working group struck by government proposes, sensibly enough, that a transition period be allowed for furnace mechanics to obtain proper credentials.

The working group also proposes allowing the territory’s working oil-burner mechanics to write a certification exam without completing a full apprenticeship.

A Yukon College course for oil-burner mechanics would be reinstated in a new form. The old course was scrapped when the federal money that paid for it dried up. And “appropriate training” would be provided for oil-burner inspectors.

So now the government concedes that it has a role in regulating the trade. It wasn’t long ago when officials asserted that it was the responsibility of residents to vet the credentials of the oil-burner mechanics they hired.

As for the new legislation proposed to govern the use of oil-burner appliances – such legislation was first proposed by another working group, four years ago.

Important questions remain. The territory’s working group wants oil-burner mechanics to be “qualified” to receive a licence to install, upgrade or service a furnace. But the working group never bothered to define what “qualified” means in their slim, 15-page report.

Marc Perreault, the group’s chair, told the News last week that this means mechanics would be nationally certified, red-ticket journeymen. Confusingly, he had a very different message in March. Then, he insisted that some of the territory’s oil-burner mechanics, while not possessing national credentials, were nevertheless qualified. “I’ve never been one to say a person who isn’t certified isn’t qualified,” he said then.

The report’s vague language could let the government pick a lower threshold and still say it’s following the working group’s recommendations. If there were a national code for writing rigorous government reports, this kind of loophole would be banned.

Just what are the best licensing standards for oil-furnace mechanics in the Yukon? We have no idea. Provinces regulate the oil-burner trade in a variety of ways, so there’s no clear model to follow. Perhaps simple jobs, like routine tune-ups, don’t warrant the same credentials as what’s needed to do complicated installations and upgrades. Perreault has suggested as much in the past.

To get to the bottom of it, we suppose you’d have to convene a working group of oil-burner mechanics, inspectors and other officials. Except we just did that, and somehow we seem no closer to an answer.

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