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Iceland Again On the Brink By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday August 02, 2005

Berkeley Iceland faces possible closure this month after city officials gave the rink until Aug. 22 to remove more than 4,000 pounds of potentially toxic ammonia used to cool the ice surface. 

The city contends that the 65-year-old rink’s antiquated ammonia cooling system poses a public health threat. Deputy Fire Chief David Orth said the city would only let Iceland continue operating after the deadline if the rink installed a temporary cooling system while upgrading the current ammonia system. 

Iceland General Manager Jay Wescott said installing a temporary system by the Aug. 22 deadline didn’t seem feasible and that Iceland was considering a legal challenge to keep the rink in business past the deadline. 

“We’re going to look at all of our options to stay open,” he said. “We are not a health and safety risk. There is no reason for us to close.” 

Wescott declined to speculate about the rink’s future in Berkeley if it were forced to close its doors while completing upgrades to the cooling system. 

Earlier this year it appeared Iceland had taken steps to avoid a shutdown. Under an agreement with the city, the rink was to upgrade its ammonia-based system by November. However, Orth said Iceland pushed back scheduled completion of the repair work to next April and in May the rink alerted city officials that the cooling system holds 4,283 pounds of ammonia rather than 750 pounds, as city officials said they were previously led to believe. 

“It’s not an acceptable hazard at this point,” Orth said. “We’re just afraid the ammonia will get out of the system as it has in the past and we won’t be able to keep people safe.” 

He added that Berkeley might have allowed the rink to continue operating the system if upgrades were on schedule, but the combination of construction delays and additional ammonia volume had forced the city’s hand. 

Last month Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff sent the rink a letter warning of a joint city-county enforcement action against the rink. 

“It is apparent that you knew that you had substantially more than 750 pounds well before your recent disclosure,” Orloff wrote. “We have serious concerns about the danger your business presents to your local community.” 

Orth said the presence of roughly six times more ammonia in the cooling system than previously assumed means that in the case of a major accident, the gas could travel up to a mile downwind of the South Berkeley rink, which is located at Milvia and Ward streets.  

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 ammonia exposure are nose and throat irritation, convulsive coughing, severe eye irritation and respiratory spasms. 

Iceland’s system only poses a public health risk in the event of an accidental release. There have been two leaks at the rink since 1998. The larger leak, according to Orth, required firefighters to hose down a cloud of ammonia released into the air. There were no reported injuries in either leak. 

Wescott said that the rink had not suffered any catastrophic ammonia leaks since opening in 1940 and that recent tests showed the system could withstand a major earthquake. 

He added that the city should have known two years ago that the cooling system held far more than 750 pounds of ammonia. He pointed to a 2003 incident report following an ammonia leak at the rink indicating that the system’s ammonia tanks didn’t have the capacity to hold all of the system’s ammonia. Wescott said city officials knew the tanks could hold around 2,500 pounds of ammonia. 

“I don’t think the city is being fair with us,” he said. “I really sense they want to shut us down. Why, I don’t know.” 

City Toxics Division Manager Nabil Al-Hadithy replied that it was not the city’s job to perform ammonia calculations and that Iceland has repeatedly certified having 750 pounds of ammonia on site, the most recent instance coming this past February in the rink’s Hazardous Business Materials Plan. 

Wescott said Iceland only needs about 750 pounds of ammonia to cool the rink, but that the chiller, installed in 1940, is oversized for the rink and requires additional ammonia to operate. He said system upgrades would include reducing the amount of ammonia needed to operate the system to between 500 and 750 pounds. 

Wescott said he couldn’t estimate the cost of installing a temporary cooling system that meets city specifications. 

“It’s going to be very expensive,” he said. “And I don’t see how we can get it done in three weeks.” 

Earlier this year Iceland opted to upgrade the ammonia system rather than install a more expensive Freon-based system, which it uses at its other locations in Dublin and Belmont. 

To meet city codes, the rink must install a discharge tank to neutralize escaped ammonia by dumping it into water, a water spray system to treat ammonia contaminated air and a remote control system to allow firefighters to move ammonia away from the source of a leak.  

Under the present conditions, Orth said a firefighter trying to redirect the ammonia would have to climb a ladder in the rink’s control room while wearing a moon suit.?