Yukon government ignored oil burner warnings: NDP

The Yukon Housing Corporation has withheld from public view a damning report on the state of the territory's oil-burning furnaces for two years.

The Yukon Housing Corporation has withheld from public view a damning report on the state of the territory’s oil-burning furnaces for two years.

The 2010 report’s author, Rod Corea of NRG Resources, warned that “self-regulation has failed to provide minimum safety standards, and indeed has put the Yukon at risk in their oil-heated industry.”

Yet the Yukon’s political leaders dismissed these warnings, just as they had done with two previous studies done by the same consultant in 2007 and 2008. And they never acted on Corea’s key recommendation: to regulate the industry that installs and maintains furnaces in most Yukoners’ homes.

Now that five Porter Creek residents are dead from what is believed to be carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty oil heating system, the government needs to act, said NDP Leader Liz Hanson this week.

“The government needs to have the courage to do its job,” she said as she released a copy of the 2010 report to the media.

In a video presentation that summarized the 2010 report, Corea offered a warning that’s chilling in light of the deaths of Valerie and Bradley Rusk, their children Gabriel and Rebekah, and their friend Donald McNamee.

VIDEO:Yukon government was warned about the state of the territory’s oil furnace industry.

“The time is now. We have to act,” Corea concluded. “We have to ensure the installation of oil equipment is done by qualified technicians, and inspected by qualified inspectors, to ensure the installations are safe and reliable and to the long-term benefit of the Yukon.

“Hopefully, you’ll be able to take action to do them in very short order, before something unfortunate happens.”

But territorial officials never heeded his call to action. Today, no training is required to work as an oil-burning furnace mechanic in the Yukon.

“As it stands right now, you and I could attach a sign to a truck, place an ad in the Yellow Pages and call ourselves oil-burner mechanics,” said Hanson.

That’s not the case with propane-burner mechanics. Their trade is tightly regulated by the government’s gas inspections unit.

Yet four-fifths of the territory’s furnaces run off oil, said Corea. He describes the difference between how the government regulates both industries as “gaping.”

If Corea’s reports are any indication, most oil furnaces are improperly installed.

Corea evaluated a total of 305 oil-burning furnaces between 2007 and 2010. Only four met the federal building code – the minimum standards required by law.

“Put another way, 99 per cent of the installations don’t comply with the code,” said Corea.

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. That 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.”

Perhaps most troubling, Corea’s final report found the condition of furnaces he reinspected had not improved.

“Contractors are not correcting problems or are creating more problems when corrective action is taken,” said his report. “The inspection of sites with new equipment shows that new installations are as poor as, or worse than, older installations.”

Housing Corporation officials were watching for this troubling sign when they commissioned the last report.

“We want to see if we can improve this situation without having to legislate. You know, everyone hates legislation,” Marc Perreault, the housing corporation’s director of program delivery, told the News in January 2009.

“If we can’t fix the problem through other means, then legislation will have to come into play. We definitely need to take public safety as number one.”

But the conclusions of the 2010 report that industry had failed to regulate itself didn’t sway cabinet’s resolve that new legislation wasn’t the solution.

Jim Kenyon, who was the Yukon’s housing minister at the time, said it was a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

“It’s nice to say we should be doing something. But when there’s no one qualified to do it, it becomes difficult,” he said in an interview this week.

He’s talking about the shortage of certified oil-burner mechanics in the territory. In 2008, fewer than five per cent had received their certification.

“I think at that point there were 14 qualified technicians in all of Yukon, 13 of whom were working,” said Kenyon. “The 14th worked at the Housing Corporation. The running joke used to be we’d have to get him out doing service calls.

“It’s a two-edged sword. You can’t put in a regulation to do something, when you don’t have the capacity to do it,” said Kenyon. “What are you going to do? Say ‘You’re going to have to turn your furnace off. It’s 40 below? Tough.’ You can imagine the response to that.”

And, ultimately, homeowners need to assume some responsibility for ensuring their furnace is properly maintained by a qualified technician, said Kenyon.

“Push comes to shove, you’re responsible for your own home. You can’t go regulating everything.”

It remains unclear whether the territory has made any headway in boosting the number of certified oil-burner mechanics since Corea sounded his alarm. Current numbers weren’t available at press time.

Both Kenyon and Scott Kent, the current housing minister, point to a Yukon College pilot program offered in 2009 and 2010, which trained a total of 10 oil-burner technicians.

Of those graduates, six went on to complete apprenticeships and became certified. But the course they took no longer exists.

The pilot program only lasted as long as the federal stimulus funds used to pay for it, said Shelagh Rowles, the college’s dean of applied science and management. There weren’t enough potential students “to make it a self-sustaining enterprise,” she said.

But college officials are looking at how to run the course in another form, perhaps as a distance education program for residents in the communities.

Neither Kent, Kenyon or college officials could say why Corea’s final report hadn’t been published by the housing corporation. But it will be soon, said Joanne Harach, the corporation’s director of policy and communication.

As a public education push, the territory issues maintenance reminders and checklists to homeowners, said Kent. But, beyond that, he and the rest of cabinet are waiting for the results of an investigation into the Porter Creek deaths “before we come up with the plans to move forward.”

Hanson wants to see oil-burner mechanics licensed by the territory to ensure they’re qualified to do their jobs.

She also wants to require landlords to install and maintain carbon monoxide detectors in their rental units, and to have furnaces in rental units maintained by a licensed mechanic.

Furnace inspectors would also like tougher training requirements. And the shoddy state of the territory’s furnaces is another reason to pass whistleblowing legislation, said Hanson.

Government officials are “afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs,” she said.

This lack of standards does no favour to qualified oil-burner mechanics, said Corea. “Contractors want to work on a level playing field and make sure they’re not being undercut by people who are willing to put people at risk.”

Even teenagers flipping burgers at fast-food restaurants are required to complete a training program, said Kate White, NDP MLA for Takhini-Kopper King. “But we have an industry to heat your homes, and there’s no guarantee,” she said.

“It should make people furious. You should be angry. We should be up in arms.”

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