Fernie takes RCMP to court over records linked to fatal ammonia leak

The city alleges that Mounties illegally obtained two log books after the death of three arena workers.

B.C. judge denies application, cites possibility that city could be 'suspect' in investigation

A memorial is seen outside of city hall in Fernie, B.C., after an ammonia leak at the local ice rink killed Fernie residents Wayne Hornquist, 59, Lloyd Smith, 52, and 46-year-old Jason Podloski of Turner Valley, Alta. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

The investigation into an ammonia leak that killed three people inside an arena in Fernie, B.C., has led to a legal battle between the municipality and the RCMP.

The city alleges Mounties illegally obtained two log books detailing the maintenance and operations of the rink's refrigeration system, and seized them without a search warrant in the aftermath of the leak, according to court documents.

Fernie filed an application with B.C. provincial court asking for the right to inspect and copy the two books, arguing it has an obligation under the Workers Compensation Act to investigate exactly what went wrong.

But on Wednesday, Provincial Court Judge Lynal Doerksen denied Fernie's request, pointing out that the city could actually be a "suspect" in the criminal probe.

"Given the nature of the incident: multiple fatalities with a possible criminal cause, it is obvious that it would not be in the public interest to jeopardize the RCMP investigation to assist the City with a statutory obligation," Doerksen wrote.

Two city workers and a Calgary-based employee of CIMCO Refrigeration were killed in the Oct. 17 ammonia leak. WorkSafeBC, Technical Safety BC, the RCMP and the city are all investigating what happened.

According to the court judgment, Fernie claims it can't complete its probe without the log books.

The men who knew the most about the rink's refrigeration system were all killed in the disaster, and so the information in those records is crucial, the city argued.

LLoyd Smith, left, and Jason Podloski, right, died after an ammonia leak at the Fernie Memorial Arena on Oct. 17. (Facebook)

Mounties have not denied seizing the log books without a warrant. They only obtained a search warrant after getting a firefighter to retrieve the records for them.

Investigators from WorkSafeBC and Technical Safety BC have already been permitted to view the log books.

But as the judge pointed out, the city is actually one of the subjects of the police investigation, and allowing access to the records might compromise the integrity of the probe.

"To put it bluntly: the RCMP investigation is a criminal investigation and there is the possibility of criminal charges such as 'criminal negligence causing death.' As the City owns and operates the arena, the City is a possible suspect," Doerksen wrote.

Whether the log books were illegally obtained is a question to be answered if charges are laid, the judge added.

An outdoor rink is being constructed beside the now-closed Fernie Memorial Arena as the city awaits the completion of several investigations into the ammonia leak which killed three workers in October. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

Mounties have said Fernie can have the log books once the investigation is complete.

The arena has yet to reopen after the leak that killed Fernie's recreational services director Lloyd Smith, 52, chief facility operator Wayne Hornquist, 59, and refrigeration specialist Jason Podloski, 46.

Last month, the community opened a new NHL-sized outdoor rink, made possible through a donation from the Calgary Flames Foundation.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.