Inquest into Porter Creek deaths to start Monday

With the coroner's inquest into last year's carbon monoxide deaths of five Porter Creek residents set to get underway on Monday, the territorial government is playing a public relations game, says NDP leader Liz Hanson.

With the coroner’s inquest into last year’s carbon monoxide deaths of five Porter Creek residents set to get underway on Monday, the territorial government is playing a public relations game, says NDP leader Liz Hanson.

On Jan 29, 2012, Bradley and Valerie Rusk, their children Gabriel and Rebekah and their boarder Donald McNamee were found dead in their Porter Creek home. All five had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a suspected faulty oil-fired heating system.

On Thursday, Education Minister Scott Kent and Community Services Minister Elaine Taylor released a letter highlighting what the government has done to improve the safety of oil-burning appliances in the territory. The changes were first announced in October.

But Hanson said the changes don’t go far enough, and said releasing the letter on the anniversary of the deaths was a “cynical” move.

“It’s unfortunate that the government is using this kind of tragic anniversary. They should be getting the hard work done, and not doing a public relations piece on it,” Hanson said.

The biggest change is that only certified oil-burner mechanics be permitted to install or perform major modifications to oil-fired appliances.

But if someone has a problem with their furnace, and calls a mechanic to come take a look, that mechanic wouldn’t have to be certified.

“We’re not proposing any specific trade qualification be required to service an oil-fired appliance. These regulations would not apply to servicing. That is something that we heard very loud and clear during our community consultations last fall, in pretty much every community,” Taylor said.

That’s because there is a serious shortage of certified mechanics in the territory.

There are no clear numbers showing how many certified oil-burner mechanics there are currently in the territory, but there have been 64 registered since the 1980s.

“Not all of them are still working and very few are working in rural areas. That means there is somewhere less than 64 to service more than 13,000 homes in the Yukon, the majority of which are heated by oil-fired furnaces,” said cabinet spokesperson Matthew Grant.

Requiring all mechanics to be certified right away would leave people in the lurch if their furnace breaks down in the winter, said Taylor.

But that goes against the key recommendation from the oil-fired appliances working group struck last year. It called for tighter regulation of the industry and a requirement that anyone servicing oil-fired appliances be certified.

“When I owned a home with an oil-fired furnace in it, there was no assurance that who was coming to do the checks to see why your furnace wasn’t working properly had any qualifications. It was the luck of the draw. That should be a guarantee,” Hanson said.

The working group wasn’t the first to recommend regulating the oil-burning appliance industry.

In 2010, Rod Corea of NRG Resources completed a survey of 305 oil-burning appliances in the Yukon. He found that only four met the federal building code – the minimum standards required by law.

He found a total of 1,688 code infractions. On average, each furnace had five code infractions, three of which were considered “significant.”

Twenty-three problems were considered “imminent hazards” that needed to be fixed immediately. Those included units that leaked exhaust gases into basements, furnaces so gummed up with soot that “chunks of carbon” were visible, and one improperly-vented furnace leaking carbon monoxide into a home and making the owner feel ill.

“This should never happen,” said Corea. “This is not rocket science. This can be corrected, just by looking for code compliance.”

The territorial government kept Corea’s final report and its accompanying video under wraps for almost two years, and his key recommendation – to regulate the trade – was never adopted.

Kent said the government is doing what it can to address the issues, including working with Yukon College to train more certified oil-burner mechanics.

The college is going to offer a level-one oil-burner mechanic apprenticeship training May 6 through July 12. Kent said there are seven students who have enrolled in that course.

“That’s one of the efforts, and we’ll explore other opportunities to provide training to individuals that are working in the field but don’t necessarily have the proper certification,” Kent said.

The college offered a similar program in 2010 that successfully graduated six certified oil-burner mechanics.

Contact Jesse Winter at

jessew@yukon-news.com

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