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Smell of gas detected 3 times in 10 days at Castlegar Primary School

District investigating the cause, teachers’ union concerned
Castlegar fire chief Sam Lattanzio at the school after looking for the gas leak in 2019. Photo: John Boivin

A series of natural gas events at Twin Rivers Castlegar Primary Campus has School District 20 looking for answers and the local teacher’s union frustrated.

Over the course of ten days in mid-November, there were three incidents at the school where the scent of natural gas was detected.

This isn’t the first time gas smells have been a problem at the 54-year-old school. In December of 2018, a gas smell was reported and a gas bleed valve was determined to be the culprit. This was followed by two more reports of gas smells in January 2019. Over the next three months, FortisBC was called to the site a dozen times.

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In the summer of 2021, all 12 of the rooftop HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) units at the school were replaced. SD20 superintendent Katherine Shearer says that all of the new equipment was inspected by Technical Safety BC at the time of installation.

The first of the recent incidents occurred on Nov. 12. The day was a Pro-D day, so students were not on site. FortisBC and the Castlegar Fire Department were called to the school, but gas was not detected inside the building so staff were allowed to re-enter the building.

Because there had been concerns for this site in the past, SD20’s director of operations Heather Simm directed staff to do a more thorough check on all the equipment at the site. That inspection was scheduled for Nov. 16.

The second incident occurred on Nov. 15. The smell was detected late in the day after the students had left and only a handful of staff remained on site. Once again, FortisBC did not detect any gas inside the building.

On Nov. 16, SD20 staff completed their inspection and found a small leak on a pipe fitting on the roof. The leak was repaired.

The third event happened on Nov. 22. No gas was detected in the building.

“SD20 is working with Fortis and Technical Safety BC,” Shearer told Castlegar News. “The current follow-up plan is to reinspect all of the newly installed units and piping, just out of an extreme level of caution.”

A thorough inspection between the district and Fortis was scheduled for Nov. 29. Results from the inspection were not available at press time. The Technical Safety BC inspection has not been confirmed.

SD20 gas safety protocols were followed by staff for two out of the three incidents. Those protocols include evacuating the building and calling 9-1-1, FortisBC, district operations and WorkSafeBC.

At the Nov. 15 incident, because all students were gone and only a handful of staff were on site, administration chose to call Fortis BC, district operations, and WSBC, but did not call 9-1-1, according to SD20.

Shearer said the district has followed up and instructed those involved on the importance of following all of the protocols.

“Student and staff safety trump everything,” said Shearer.

Teachers’ union reaction

Kootenay Columbia Teachers’ Union president Andy Davidoff says the situation is adding stress to an already stressed out work force.

“We don’t need the additional stressors of gas events on top of COVID,” said Davidoff.

Davidoff says a recent BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF)survey showed that 75 per cent of teachers say their mental health has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic.

“KCTU and its members are very concerned about the number of gas-related events that have occurred at the Castlegar Primary School site over the last couple of weeks and over the years,” said Davidoff.

Davidoff says the union has contacted WorkSafeBC and Technical Safety BC and has been advised that this is an “anomalous situation that they have not been aware of at any other site.”

The union got a similar response from the BCTF safety advisor.

“What is occurring defies logic,” says Davidoff.

He says the union is also extremely concerned that emergency procedures were not followed during one of the incidents.

KCTU has requested a meeting with Technical Safety BC, WorkSafeBC, the SD20 board, the District Parent Advisory Committee, CUPE and Castlegar Primary staff and administration to discuss the situation. Davidoff wants the meeting to happen before the Christmas break.

KCTU will determine their next steps after that meeting occurs.

Next steps for SD20

If any problems are detected in the upcoming inspections, Shearer says they will be addressed immediately.

“We want people to have confidence in the building,” said Shearer. “We don’t want staff and students having to be evacuated. We all want safe buildings that people feel confident to send their children to and to go to work in.”

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Betsy Kline

About the Author: Betsy Kline

After spending several years as a freelance writer for the Castlegar News, Betsy joined the editorial staff as a reporter in March of 2015. In 2020, she moved into the editor's position.
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