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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Mobile vaccine team Team Balto practises vaccine clinic set-up and teardown at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. Mobile vaccine teams are heading out this week to the communities in order to begin Moderna vaccinations. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mobile vaccine teams begin community vaccinations

“It’s an all-of-government approach”

The now empty lot at 410 Cook Street in Whitehorse on Jan. 19. As developers move forward with plans for a housing development that would feature 16 micro-units, they are asking city council for a zoning change that would reduce the number of required parking spaces. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Developer asks for zoning change

Would reduce the number of required parking spaces

The Liard First Nation is preparing to enter negotiations for self-governance with the territorial and federal governments. (Jackie Hong/Yukon News file)
Liard First Nation preparing to enter self-governance negotiations with Yukon, federal governments

Chief Stephen Charlie seeking an agreement separate from “dead end” UFA

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Jan. 20, 2021

A Copper Ridge resident clears their driveway after a massive over night snowfall in Whitehorse on Nov. 2, 2020. Environment Canada has issued a winter storm warning for the Whitehorse and Haines Junction areas for Jan. 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Winter storm warning for Haines Junction and Whitehorse

Environment Canada says the storm will develop Monday and last until Tuesday

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Most Read