Coroner plans for fireman’s inquest


A coroner’s inquiry into the death of firefighter Derek Lovell is to get underway next month – just days after the third anniversary of his death following the Icepak Coolstores explosion on April 5, 2008.

Firefighter Derek Lovell (Photo: Waikato Times)

Coroner Gordon Matenga has convened a pre-inquest conference on April 28 at the Hamilton District Court to determine the likely length of an inquest.

The aim of the conference is to determine whether people who have registered an interest in Derek Lovell’s death with the coroner’s office wish to give evidence at the inquest, and if they wish to bring witnesses. No date for an inquest has been set.

In October 2009, Coroner Matenga was uncertain whether he would hold an inquiry following the fatal fire at Tamahere that killed senior station officer Lovell and injured seven of his colleagues, or, if he did, how wide-ranging it would be.

In 2009, he told the NZ Herald that 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.

At the time, Matenga had not called for submissions but the article prompted people with an interest in Lovell’s death to register with his office as interested parties.

The coroner has invited those with an interest in attending the pre-inquest conference to notify his office by 4pm on Monday, April 4. Click here to email the coroner’s office.

Click the following link for a guide to the coroner’s service (pdf): Guide to Coroners Court

Other inquiries since the Icepak fire
Several inquiries have been undertaken, including by the Fire Service, Labour Department and insurance companies. Dairy giant Fonterra is also suing the plant owners for $25 million worth of cheese that it lost in the blaze.

The explosion and fire has been attributed to a leak of the highly flammable gas Hychill Minus 50, which is 95 per cent propane. The Icepak facility contained more than 400kg of the flammable hydrocarbon gas.

Firefighters dwarfed by the raging Icepak fire

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

In December 2009, Icepak Coolstores, now known as Waikato Coldstorage Limited, was fined $37,200 and Mobile Refrigeration Specialists, (MRS) the company that installed the gas, was fined $56,200 in a case brought by the Labour Department in which they were convicted of breaching health and safety employment regulations.

Icepak Coolstores managing director Wayne Grattan was also fined $30,000 and his company paid $95,000 reparation to the injured firefighters and their families.

MRS was ordered to pay $175,000 reparation to the victims. Appeals against the fines failed.

During the case, Labour Department lawyer Shona Carr outlined a catalogue of errors and inaction she said contributed to the fatal explosion.

Ultimate responsibility for the tragic explosion lay with MRS. The company “was wallowing around in a bucket of ignorance,” she told the Hamilton District Court.

But on the day of the blaze, Ms Carr said Icepak Coolstores director Iain Slight had two opportunities to warn firefighters that a highly flammable substance was being used at the site. Such a warning could have changed the events of the day, she said.

Tauranga-based MRS was contracted by Icepak Coolstores to design, install and monitor the propane-based refrigeration system at the site.

“(MRS) created a bomb without any regard whatsoever to the health and safety of its employees, employees of Icepak Coolstores Limited, and any other people who went to the site or were in the vicinity of the site such as members of the New Zealand Fire Service,” Ms Carr said.

“It was highly foreseeable that at sometime the coolstore complex would explode.”

Hydrocarbon-based refrigerate was introduced at the site in September 2002. Icepak Coolstores knew it was embarking on “an experiment” which had never been undertaken before, adapting an industrial operation to be run on a highly flammable, explosive substance.

Its directors also ignored a number of “red flags” which should have alerted them to the risks at the site.

These included the fact propane gas was leaking on a regular basis, the site’s gas detectors needed replacing, and “sources of ignition”, such as switchboards and forklifts, were all over the site.

In November 2007, 80kg of propane gas leaked at the site, just five months before the coolstore explosion.

Grattan was also aware the hydrocarbon-based refrigerant was flammable and had sufficient knowledge the coolstore plant was potentially dangerous.

“This defendant fell so far short of industry standards that it shouldn’t have built the plant at all.”

Coroner Matenga told the NZ Herald in 2009 that should he conduct an inquiry it could involve an assessment of regulations.

The Fire Service report into the blast and fire 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 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.

And since the tragedy, the Environmental Risk Management Authority has tightened rules requiring odours to be added to LPG gas, improvements to the design of refrigeration using it, signage at those sites, and constraints on the quantities that can be stored indoors.

Limits on quantities of LPG that can be stored indoors at home, in factories and warehouses, and in public buildings are now 20kg for houses up to three storeys, 10kg for each dwelling in multi-storey apartments blocks, 45kg for each 50 square metres of a factory or warehouse, up to a maximum of 180kg for each occupancy, with a maximum size of 45kg for cylinders.

The Icepak fire also focused attention on coolstore construction. Thousands of mostly industrial buildings in New Zealand have for more than 30 years been constructed using polypanel or EPS (expanded foam polystyrene panel system). In one study, Fire Service records showed that between October 2000 and December 2004 there were at least 56 fires in buildings using EPS – an average of more than one fire every month for four years.

The major causes of the fires were consistent: electrical faults, heating from solid fuel equipment, and usually when facilities were being renovated, welding, gas cutting and braising.

In June 2009, the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) produced guidelines outlining improvements to coolstore design in the longest ‘practice note’ it had ever issued.

IPENZ chairman Gerry Coates said the guidelines paid particular attention to care needed in building design around electric motors and switchgear operating in areas made hazardous by the possible presence of flammable gases.

The note advised that coolstores should be designed in collaboration with electrical, refrigeration and fire engineers – something particularly important if an existing coldstore was to be altered in a way not anticipated in the original design.

“The regulatory environment in coldstore design is multi-faceted, in that the Building Act, the Electricity Act, the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, the Health and Safety in Employment Act and various food acts must all be complied with,” Coates said.

Few people were sufficiently familiar with all of these to be able to design alone, so the design guidelines drew attention to the acts, regulations, codes, and standards which needed to be complied with.

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