Coolstore fire inquiry in doubt

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There may be no independent inquiry into the Icepak Coolstore disaster that killed fireman Derek Lovell and injured seven colleagues.

But Mr Lovell’s family and the injured firemen could be in line for a payment from the coolstore company, which has admitted breaching safety regulations, the NZ Herald reports.

The Tamahere fire memorialised in a cartoon by AC Hawkey
The Tamahere fire memorialised in a cartoon by AC Hawkey

Coroner Gordon Matenga told the Weekend Herald it was uncertain whether he would hold an inquiry or, if he did, how wide-ranging it would be.

Mr Matenga said he expected he would receive submissions on whether a coronial inquiry into the causes of the fatal fire should proceed. If it did not, a routine inquest – most likely noting that Mr Lovell died as a result of an explosion and fire – would be held, reported the NZ Herald.

Inquiries have been undertaken by interested parties – the Fire Service, Labour Department and insurance companies.

The explosion and fire were caused by a leak of the highly flammable gas Hychill Minus 50 which is 95 per cent propane.

The Labour Department, Fire Service and Waikato District Council, which handled building consents for Icepak’s Tamahere plant, were all unaware that the gas was being used.

Icepak Coolstores Ltd has admitted using the gas as a refrigerant without complying with safety requirements but has said it did so unwittingly.

Mr Matenga said that should he conduct an inquiry it could involve an assessment of regulations.

In its report, the Fire Service cleared its firemen of fault and noted there was no smell of gas (indicating an odorising agent was not used) and no signs warning of the presence of flammable gas.

The Labour Department’s report has not yet been made public but it is likely to have found Icepak at fault as the department charged the company, one of its directors, Wayne Grattan, and Mobile Refrigeration Services (which Icepak used) with failing to comply with safety standards.

The charges, laid under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, carry a maximum penalty of a $250,000 fine.

The Labour Department dropped charges against Icepak directors Jan van Eden and Iain Slight and refrigeration company employee Warren Cook.

The guilty pleas may lead to compensation for victims of the fire.

At the hearing at which the guilty pleas were entered, Judge Robert Spear noted that compensation would be discussed at a restorative justice process to occur before Grattan and the two companies are sentenced in December.

The Fire Service blamed “systemic defects” in the regulatory environment.

Since the fire, the service and Labour Department have compiled a register of industrial sites using hydrocarbon refrigerants.

One site, also supplied by MRS Ltd, had a similar set-up to Icepak’s Tamahere site but the volume of propane was significantly less and the site had now changed the refrigerant used, a department spokeswoman said.

“Since the explosion we are aware of one other site that has installed a system that uses propane, but in a safer configuration.”

Hydrocarbons were used in very small volumes in some coolrooms and vehicles and were considered to be low risk.

Changes to make gas regulations clearer have been made by the Environmental Risk Management Authority, which is also proposing to make the use of an odorising agent and warning signs for any quantity of LPG compulsory and tighten controls on where and how large quantities of flammable refrigerant gases are allowed to be stored and managed.

Submissions on the proposed changes close next month.

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