Icepak blames inspector for fatal fire

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The deadly explosion at Icepak Coolstores’ Tamahere facility was caused by the lack of action of a hazardous goods inspector, a court has been told.

But inspector Brian Liddell’s lawyer said Icepak bosses saw his report warning of the danger and chose to ignore it, reports the Waikato Times.

Update: Waikato Times apology

On Tuesday, September 14 the Waikato Times printed the following apology for inaccuracies in this story. It read as follows.

On August 20, 2010 we published a court report of the summary judgment application by Brian Liddell against Waikato Coolstorage, which arose out of the explosion at the Icepak Coolstores’ Tamahere facility. In that report we incorrectly described Mr Liddell as a hazardous goods inspector when in fact he is an electrical inspector. We also reported that the purpose of the summary judgment hearing was to determine whether Mr Liddell should be charged in relation to the explosion. This was incorrect. There was no suggestion that Mr Liddell could or should be charged in relation to the explosion and we apologise to Mr Liddell for any distress or embarrassment caused. Mr Liddell was seeking summary judgment against Icepak because he believes none of Icepak’s allegations against him can succeed. Mr Liddell believes that there was no connection between any inspection work that he did at the coolstore and the coolstore explosion, so he was in no way responsible for the explosion.

The original story continues below.

During civil proceedings in the High Court at Hamilton on Wednesday, lawyers for Icepak pointed the finger directly at Mr Liddell, of Morrinsville.

Icepak’s counsel Sarah Rawcliffe and Murray Branch told Associate Judge Faire the Icepak site – which contained more than 400 kilograms of flammable hydrocarbon gas in its refrigeration system – was a “ticking time bomb” from as early as 2004. The April 5, 2008, explosion killed Hamilton Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell and injured seven other firefighters.

This week’s summary judgment hearing was to determine whether Mr Liddell, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the industry, should be charged over the incident.

Ms Rawcliffe said the coolstore’s fan extraction systems were never able to cope with the vast amounts of hydrocarbon refrigerant being used in the coolstore. It was designed for the non-flammable refrigerant, R22.

But counsel for Mr Liddell, Catherine Bryant, said her client was in no way liable for the explosion and had advised Icepak’s contractors on two separate occasions – June 2004 and November 2006 – about his concerns.

Mr Liddell gave John Clare Electrical a verbal appraisal in 2004 and provided a written report to another contractor, Mobile Refrigeration Specialists, in 2006, outlining his concerns about the lack of heat and gas detection equipment and under-performing ventilation and extraction systems.

MRS director Warren Cook provided Icepak with a two-page extract from Mr Liddell’s report which outlined the concerns but wrote in his covering letter that there was “nothing to worry about”, Ms Bryant said.

“They saw this report and didn’t do anything … not only did they make no attempt to comply but they made no attempt to find out what they needed to comply.”

For Icepak to gain hazardous goods compliance for the whole site would have been “unachievable at a reasonable cost”.

Ms Bryant said a Labour Department report spoke of “a culture of letting things go … and normalising the abnormal and bad things that happened” at the site in the years leading up to the explosion.

But Ms Rawcliffe said Mr Liddell had a “duty of care” to get in touch with Icepak directly about its site which was “an accident waiting to happen”.

A price could not be put on transforming the whole plant to safely operate such large amounts of hydrocarbon refrigerant – a Labour Department report said it was not possible without completely rebuilding the refrigeration system.

Mr Liddell should have approached Icepak directly to shut it down immediately.

“He knew that L-gas was flammable and if held into an area not ventilated [properly] and if there was a spark, it could explode … he knew that in 2004.”

Mr Branch put it more bluntly.

“If he had [warned of danger] we wouldn’t be standing here today … the fire would never have occurred.”

Ms Rawcliffe also said the spark which ignited the coolstore was caused by a firefighter hitting a pipe with a hammer.

However, the results of a separate New Zealand Fire Service investigation carried into the explosion last year found the ignition source was electrical.

The result of the hearing, which was adjourned till October, is likely to have an impact on further civil proceedings which include Fonterra, Open Country Cheese and Tatua Co-operative Dairy Co’s action against Icepak to recoup the estimated $25 million loss of cheese product in the fire.

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