Furnace warnings kept under wraps

The public can't handle the truth when it comes to unsafe oil furnaces, as far as some territorial officials are concerned. That's according to a ream of documents obtained by the Yukon News through an access-to-information request.

The public can’t handle the truth when it comes to unsafe oil furnaces, as far as some territorial officials are concerned.

That’s according to a ream of documents obtained by the Yukon News through an access-to-information request.

In the spring of 2010, Rod Corea, of NRC Resources, issued the last of several damning reports on the state of the territory’s oil furnaces.

He also prepared a video presentation, in which he offered a warning that’s haunting, given the subsequent deaths of five Porter Creek residents of carbon monoxide poisoning in January.

“Hopefully, you’ll be able to take action … in very short order, before something unfortunate happens,” Corea said in the video, which was suppressed from public view until February when it was obtained by the NDP Opposition.

It was kept secret for a reason.

“My understanding is that there is no appetite in (the Department of Community Services) to go the regulation route, yet that is the key concluding recommendation in Rod’s report, hence my hesitation in supporting posting it to the website,” wrote Joanne Harach, a policy analyst with the Yukon Housing Corporation, in an email dated May 31, 2010.

Dale Kozmen, vice-president of operations, wrote later that same day: “I believe Minister (Jim) Kenyon should see the video before any further discussion is made on whether to place it on our public website. That would be the first step.”

It appears to be the last step, too. The video and written report were never publicly released until the NDP got its hands on it.

The video was screened at a meeting with industry representatives in the spring of 2010. Harach recommended also showing the video to any contractor who asked to see it, in the corporation’s boardroom.

“I do not recommend leaving the video with anyone though,” she wrote.

Yet Harach appeared to champion the idea of regulating the industry within the bureaucracy. As a result, she clashed with Dan Boyd, assistant deputy minister of Community Services.

“There are limits in which we can help,” Boyd wrote to Harach 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.”

This followed a heated phone call between the two over the matter, in which Harach seems to have called for greater regulation.

Boyd didn’t appreciate the suggestion. According to Harach’s email, he threatened to “go to the premier and ministers in a way that would put Yukon Housing Corp. in a very negative light.”

Boyd insists she misunderstood his comments. “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.

Others within government shared concerns about the safety of oil furnaces, which heat most Yukoners’ homes.

On June 3, 2010, as officials prepared a newspaper advertisement that reminded residents to keep their furnaces maintained, Cathy Cottrell, an adviser with the Energy Solutions Centre, wondered whether they were missing the bigger picture.

“Whyare 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?” she asked.

Other safety initiatives appear to have fallen by the wayside.

On June 21, 2010, Kozmen told Boyd and others in an email the corporation was “developing a tool for homeowners that could provide them with some guidance when seeking qualified maintenance contractors.”

Such a tool still doesn’t exist, according to housing officials.

And on Sept. 19, 2011, Harach asked Caitlin Kerwin, an adviser with Community Services, whether her department was preparing new legislation for oil-burning appliances.

“There are no plans that I am aware of at this time to identify the need for such an act,” replied Kerwin.

Such legislation is one of several recommendations made by a committee four years ago.

The committee, like Corea, also called for the territory to regulate the oil-burner trade. That hasn’t happened, either.

Instead, Housing Minister Scott Kent announced on Wednesday that the territory would act by striking yet another committee to examine the issue.

The working group is expected to develop recommendations by the summer “so that we can have a made-in-Yukon solution that works not only in downtown Whitehorse, but also in communities such as Old Crow, Mayo, Carmacks and Watson Lake,” Kent told the legislature.

The government has made some efforts over the past few years to improve furnace safety. Corea trained building inspectors, so they had a better understanding of the building code.

And in 2010, a new regulation required homeowners to get a building permit if an oil furnace is installed or upgraded. Officials say this should ensure residential furnaces are safe, provided that homeowners do their part and keep furnaces properly maintained.

But Corea’s reports suggest it won’t do much.

Of the 305 residential oil furnaces inspected by him between 2007 and 2010, only four met the building code.

Approximately half of the furnaces inspected by Corea had received a building permit, according to one government estimate. And newly-installed furnaces were “as poor as, or worse than, older installations,” according to Corea’s final report.

Officials have recently downplayed these findings by suggesting that Corea focused on older installations. But that wasn’t the case.

Internal communication at the housing corporation shows no quibbling over Corea’s findings. Allyn Lyon, a director at the corporation, called the findings “pretty damning” but conceded its contents were “excellent.”

Corea is an expert in his field. He co-authored the national code for oil appliances.

But his key finding remained ignored – that “self-regulation has failed to provide minimum safety standards, and indeed has put the Yukon at risk in their oil-heated industry.”

The oil-fired appliances advisory committee agreed. Among other things, it wanted building inspectors to be certified oil-burner mechanics.

Currently none are, whether they work for the City of Whitehorse or the territory’s building safety branch. Yet they’re expected to ensure furnace contractors are doing their job properly.

Officials worried that hiring certified oil mechanics as inspectors would cost too much, according to a memo issued by Kozmen and Boyd in June 2009.

The plan would have also required hiring more staff, as it involved the territory taking over the city’s role of conducting inspections within Whitehorse.

Furnace mechanics should also be certified if they install or upgrade a furnace, according to another committee recommendation.

But that plan has also been shelved, partly because there aren’t enough trained and certified oil-burner mechanics in the territory, according to the 2009 memo.

Yet, if a shortage of certified mechanics is the main reason why the territory has balked at regulating the trade, it hasn’t done much to improve the situation.

In 2009 and 2010, Yukon College offered a pilot program, which aimed to train oil-burner technicians. The program produced 10 graduates.

Of those, six went on to complete apprenticeships and pass their nationally-recognized exam to become journeyman mechanics.

But the course ended along with the federal stimulus spending that paid for it. The college is now looking at getting another course running.

In 2008, Corea estimated that just five per cent of the territory’s oil-burner mechanics are certified.

No territorial agency has a tally of current numbers so it’s impossible to say whether the government is making any headway in its aim to boost the number of qualified furnace contractors.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com

Just Posted

Whether the dust jacket of this historical novel is the Canadian version (left) or the American (right), the readable content within is the same. (Michael Gates)
History Hunter: New novel a gripping account of the gold rush

Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike is an ‘enjoyable and readable’ account of history

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your furnace and your truck need to go

Perhaps the biggest commitment in the NDP deal with the Liberals was boosting the Yukon’s climate target

Awaken Festival organizers Meredith Pritchard, Colin Wolf, Martin Nishikawa inside the Old Firehall in Whitehorse on May 11. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Performing arts fest plans to awaken artistic talent in Whitehorse and the rural North

‘A value of ours is to make theatre as accessible as possible.’

April Mikkelsen tosses a disc during a ladies only disc golf tournament at Solstice DiscGolfPark on May 8. John Tonin/Yukon News
Yukon sees its first-ever women’s disc golf tournament

The Professional Disc Golf Assocation had a global women’s event last weekend. In the Yukon, a women’s only tournament was held for the first time ever.

Dave Blottner, executive director at the Whitehorse Food Bank, said the food bank upped its services because of the pandemic. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Food Bank sees Yukoners’ generosity firsthand

“Businesses didn’t know if they could stay open but they were calling us to make sure we were able to stay open.”

A prescribed burn is seen from the lookout at Range Road and Whistle Bend Way in Whitehorse May 12. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Editorial: Are you ready for a forest fire?

Citizens for a Firesmart Whitehorse have listed some steps for Yukoners to boost safety and awareness

Caribou pass through the Dempster Highway area in their annual migration. A recent decision by the privacy commissioner has recommended the release of some caribou collar re-location data. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News)
Privacy commissioner recommends release of caribou location data

Department of Environment says consultation with its partners needed before it will consider release

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Family pleased youth will be able to get Pfizer vaccine

Angela Drainville, mother of two, is anxious for a rollout plan to come forward

Safe at home office in Whitehorse on May 10, 2021. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Federal government provides $1.6 million for Yukon anti-homelessness work

Projects including five mobile homes for small communities received funding.

Drilling at Northern Tiger’s 3Ace gold project in 2011. Randi Newton argues that mining in the territory can be reshaped. (Yukon government/file)
Editorial: There’s momentum for mining reform

CPAWS’ Randi Newton argues that the territory’s mining legislations need a substantial overhaul

At its May 10 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the subdivision for the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s business park planned in Marwell. (Submitted)
KDFN business park subdivision approved

Will mean more commercial industrial land available in Whitehorse

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. Whitehorse city council has passed the first two readings of a bylaw to allow pop-up patios in city parking spaces. Third reading will come forward later in May. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Whitehorse council pursuing restaurant patio possibilities

Council passes first two readings for new patio bylaw

Most Read