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Ammonia leak at Fernie, B.C., arena leaves three dead, area evacuated

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 at 3:00 am EST

FERNIE, B.C. – Three people are dead after a possible ammonia leak at an arena in Fernie, B.C. on Tuesday night that also forced an evacuation of homes, businesses and a retirement home in the immediate area.

WorkSafeBC said based on preliminary information, three workers were exposed to a gas leak shortly before noon.

The city said details about the victims would be released once they are identified and their next of kin are notified.

The city, which has declared a seven-day local state of emergency, said residents in the evacuation area have been provided overnight accommodations. There was no immediate word on how many people had to leave the area.

Fire chief Ted Ruiter said the situation was “somewhat under control” although emergency crews were still waiting to safely enter the Fernie Memorial Arena late Tuesday where the deaths occurred.

“We’re still concerned about some ammonia leaking into the environment,” he said.

Officials have not said if others were inside the facility at the time of the leak. Ruiter said there were no injuries in addition to the deaths.

He said WorkSafeBC had been contacted about the incident and the RCMP was leading the investigation at the site.

“Anytime you’re dealing with fatalities it’s always tough,” he said of the event’s impact on his crews. “We’re a small city and everybody knows each other. It’s very hard to deal with, for sure.”

The city said in a news release it is working with CIMCO Refrigeration and trying to get additional specialized resources to deal with the hazardous situation.

Ruiter said B.C.’s Ministry of Environment is also sending staff to assist with monitoring and to determine what the next steps will be.

Ammonia is commonly used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those found in ice rinks. Ammonia is used in liquid form in these systems but becomes a gas once it is released into the air.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says ammonia is a colourless gas that is very toxic if inhaled and can cause death.

Symptoms of ammonia poisoning may include coughing, shortness of breath, difficult breathing and tightness in the chest. The centre also says symptoms may develop hours after exposure and are made worse by physical effort.

In addition to being used in ice rinks, ammonia is used in fertilizer and to make plastics, fibres and other chemicals.