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

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