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Berkeley Skating Rink on Thin Ice By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday December 28, 2004

City officials are threatening to shut down Iceland, Berkeley’s World War II-era ice skating rink, if the rink’s management doesn’t act fast to address dozens of code violations.  

“They’re not anywhere near up to standards,” said City Planning Director Dan Marks. 

A city audit of Iceland performed last year found 36 violations, the most serious ones connected to the rink’s ammonia system used to chill the ice surface. 

Ammonia, a common refrigerant for skating rinks, is a toxic gas that can be lethal, and turn highly combustible when mixed with oil. Common ailments associated with exposure to ammonia include nose and throat irritation, convulsive coughing, severe eye irritation, and respiratory spasms. Iceland’s ammonia system only poses a community health risk in the event of an accidental release. 

Still, with homes and Berkeley Alternative High School just blocks away from the South Berkeley rink, Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief David Orth, labeled the rink’s refrigeration system “a distinct hazard to life or property” in a Dec. 3 letter to Iceland management. 

The city’s push to bring the rink into compliance with city and state codes comes after the rink leaked 33 pounds of ammonia in June 2003. Although the rink never called the fire department, firefighters at a station one block east of the rink at Milvia and Derby streets smelled the noxious gas and raced to the rink. The leak was later found to be caused by a faulty valve that had been replaced without city permits, Orth told the Daily Planet.  

In 1998, he said, a larger ammonia leak at the rink required the fire department to set up water streams to dissipate the cloud of ammonia being released into the atmosphere. 

In response to the June 2003 release and the audit findings the city urged Iceland to hire an engineering consultant to address the city’s concerns and has met with Iceland officials seven times since this March. A letter sent Dec. 15 from City Manager Phil Kamlarz alerting city councilmembers to the city’s concerns came after Iceland’s consultant, Katin Engineering Consulting, released a report showing several safety deficiencies remaining at the rink. 

City officials are pushing Iceland management either to upgrade its ammonia system, which can hold up to 750 pounds of the gas, or to dump it for a different refrigerant, most likely freon, which East Bay Iceland, operator of the Berkeley rink, uses in its two other facilities in Dublin and Belmont. 

Jay Westcott, Berkeley Iceland’s general manager, insisted that the rink planned to stick with the ammonia system. “The city is acting like our equipment is ready to fail immediately but the integrity of the system is excellent,” he said. 

Westcott added that Iceland is conducting tests to determine the condition of the pipes and compressors that circulate the ammonia. Even if the tests’ results, expected to be released next week, show no corrosion, Westcott acknowledged the rink needs to upgrade its system significantly. 

“We know what the city wants and we’re prepared to do it,” he said. 

Deputy Chief Orth has given the rink a Jan. 8 deadline—under threat of closure—to formulate a plan to address the fire department’s three biggest concerns. Unlike modern ammonia systems, Orth said, Iceland’s control room lacks a discharge tank to neutralize escaped ammonia by dumping it into water, a water spray system to treat ammonia contaminated air and a way for the fire department to move the ammonia away from the source of the leak by remote control. 

Without such controls, Orth said firefighters responding to a leak now have to risk their safety by entering the rink’s control room. 

Although city and rink officials haven’t settled on a timetable for repairs, Orth said the fire department’s top priorities would have to be addressed quickly for the rink to remain open. 

“If they say it will take two years, that’s unacceptable, if they say 90 days, that would be OK,” Orth said. 

Tasha Brooks, who lives across the street from the rink and smelled ammonia from the 1998 leak said she was less concerned about ammonia than late night noise from the rink. 

“If I was concerned about chemicals, I wouldn’t live in Berkeley,” she said. 

Despite the city’s concerns, ammonia has been making a comeback in U.S. ice rinks over the past decade, said Peter Martell, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute, a national association of ice rink operators of which East Bay Iceland is a member. He added that he didn’t know of any rink in the U.S. or Canada being shut down because of its ammonia system. 

“One good thing about ammonia is that it has such a strong odor, if it leaks, you know it right away,” Martell said. 

In the mid 1960s, ammonia gave way as the leading ice rink refrigerant to Freon, which was championed by its manufacturer, Dupont, and seen as a less toxic gas than ammonia. However, Freon, a chloroflurocarbon, was later believed to deplete ozone and was targeted for elimination by 2025 under The Montreal Protocol, an international treaty.  

Now, Martell said that ammonia, which is cheaper and does not deplete ozone, has made a comeback in the U.S., sparked largely by Canadian rink suppliers, most of whom never switched to Freon. 

“Freon doesn’t make sense for us,” Westcott said. He estimated that switching to the gas would cost the rink nearly $300,000—a far steeper price tag than upgrading the current ammonia system. 

As it has since Iceland opened in 1940, the system works by sending the ammonia from the rink’s control room through a loop of pipes and compressors to the roof of the rink and back. The ammonia cools the salt water brine located underneath the ice surface. 

Within Berkeley, Orth said that Bayer operates a more modern ammonia system and that the Takara Sake factory recently switched from ammonia to Freon after experiencing an ammonia leak several years ago.  

John Burley, an ice rink supplier specializing in Freon refrigeration systems, said that new forms of Freon, although they are more expensive, do little or no damage to the ozone. 

Orth said that the 64-year-old rink would never be able to comply fully with all city and state regulations if it kept its current system, but that with significant upgrades and stringent monitoring, the city could keep the rink in operation. 

“Our intent is to keep it open,” Orth said. “It’s an institution.” 

Opened in 1940, by the Zamboni family, maker of the famed ice-paving machine, Iceland in its early days hosted the U.S. National Figure Championships and more recently has served as a part-time training facility for Olympic gold medal winners Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi. 

Currently, the rink claims to draw between 100,000 and 150,000 skaters every year and has more than 300 children in its hockey programs. 

“There’s a lot of sentimentality for this rink,” said Mary and Greg Wong, who had their first date at Iceland in 1977 and were skating there last week. “Generations of families have come here. It would be devastating if it closed.”›