Violations 101 - Ministry audit notes several safety violations at VCC; Findings include inoperable emergency generator, potential carbon monoxide poisoning

By Stanley Tromp, Vancouver Courier, 24 June 2011

 

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Tiffany Kalanj sits in the old childcare centre of the East Broadway Street campus of Vancouver Community College, a trades, music and languages school that bills itself as "B.C.'s Number One College." The executive director of the VCC student union is completely engrossed in her reading.

The subject is a 46-page audit by the B.C. Ministry of Finance about VCC's oversight of its building management contractor, whose job it was to operate and maintain the buildings' heating, ventilation, electrical and plumbing systems. The audit was obtained by the Courier using the freedom of information law, and it reveals topics she knew nothing about.

She reads that if a fire had started, VCC students (including the disabled and new immigrants struggling to learn English) might have learned the hard way that "contrary to the law, emergency lighting was not monthly tested and maintained at city centre campus. The batteries for such were frequently defective."

The fire pumps at each campus were not tested monthly to ensure they were working. The emergency generator, which serves as back-up electrical supply for the fire pumps, was not operable.

Regarding the air that students must breathe, a lack of inspections of the King Edward diesel shop exhaust system "contributed to potential carbon monoxide poisoning." Contrary to law, kitchen gas appliances were not tested. Rooftop air handling units were not regularly inspected, "such that natural gas leaks potentially occurred within the campus air circulation system."

Incorrect chemical treatment of water caused corrosion in cooling towers, leading to "potentially dangerous biological growth" that could pass through the vents. A significant refrigerant gas leak from a chiller compressor was not detected by sensors, nor reported to the government. Pressure vessels were not in compliance or inspected.

And on it goes, for many more pages. The college is subject to city fire bylaws, the B.C. Fire Code, Worksafe B.C. regulations, and B.C. and federal environmental regulations. At times, most of these were violated. (The Courier also obtained copies of all Worksafe inspection reports of VCC over the past decade and have posted them at vancourier.com, along with the entire audit.)

"No effective oversight of this contractor's performance, leading to significant non-compliance with life-safety laws," the audit concludes. Moreover, an independent review commissioned by the college in June 2007 noted that "much of the maintenance and upkeep of electrical facilities and mechanical equipment at both campuses reflected general neglect over a long period of time."

In sum, the health and safety of 25,000 students (and children in the KEC daycare) may have been placed at risk for years, with potentially tragic consequences.

And the true scope of the problem is still unknown, the auditors wrote, because they had been partially stonewalled.

VCC did not supply the records requested for their investigation, even though "there were legal requirements for the College to have kept such records... Where we could not reach a conclusion in regard to some of the complainants' concerns regarding life safety, this was because of a lack of adequate documentation being made available to us." As Kalanj reads through these lines, she seems a little dazed. Finally she looks up, and wonders aloud, "This is crazy. How could this happen?"

The Courier tried to find out, and found more new questions than answers.

Beyond the many safety violations, the finance ministry unearthed another serious problem. In several years before VCC ended its relationship with the management company KD Engineering Ltd. in 2006, the college had paid it more than $1 million a year. Further, after reviewing all the available VCC financial statements, the Courier found that the college had paid KD more than $22 million from fiscal year 1978/79 to 2005/06. (That number would be higher if several missing VCC annual reports could be located.)

And yet, the auditors wrote, "the College had no competitive procurement process for 31 years of facility services awarded to the contractor. This direct awarding of contracted services was contrary to B.C. public-sector procurement policy."

In fact, VCC had no written agreement with the company on file since 1990, and that one was only a draft. As well, Langara College paid KD more than $13.5 million from 1994/95 to 2010/11, and the combined total of the two colleges' spending on KD adds up to more than $35 million over the years.

The auditors noted other management failings, and "partially confirmed" a complaint that "the contractor charged for regular service services PPM [planned preventative maintenance] work not fully performed." Moreover, "An important control instituted by the College in 1995 to help prevent and detect any double-charges of the contractor's staff time between regular and extra services was allowed to lapse."

The news had come to light slowly. In December 2006 (as the audit relates), two former VCC facility managers wrote a complaint to an unidentified MLA, and that letter was forwarded to the Ministry of Advanced Education. A month later, VCC administrators replied to the ministry. It denied the complaints, and offered assurances.

Then more serious complaints were sent to the ministry. In May 2007, the assistant deputy minister met with VCC's then-president Dale Dorn (1999-2010), and also asked the Ministry of Finance's comptroller general branch to perform an audit of VCC, which it did.

In their final report, the auditors made specific recommendations on VCC. For instance, that "the Ministry ensures the College Board fully discharges its duties to ensure the College complies with all applicable life-safety laws and otherwise provides a safe environment for onsite staff and students." A follow-up "detailed action plan" said some corrections have been made at VCC. It is the college's vice-president of finance who hires the facilities manager. After three years as VCC finance director, Peter Legg took over as finance VP in January 2006, and VCC's relationship with KD was terminated in late September of that year. (His predecessors in that role could not be reached for comment.)

In an interview in a boardroom above a coffee shop at the King Edward Campus, I ask Legg: were the audit findings expected, or a surprise? He won't answer, and after a very long uneasy pause replies, "By now, the problems are fully dealt with." Later, when repeatedly asked why VCC separated from KD, Legg will only say "It was a mutual decision," and he won't answer why VCC ever employed KD without a tendering process, a practice that began decades before he began work at the college.

Yet Legg assures us that such problems are all history: "We started working on the problems when we got the draft audit report. The B.C. finance ministry gave us a letter of direction, and we shared that with the VCC board of governors."

As soon as VCC learned of the problems, he says, VCC promptly called in an external expert to review the safety systems and, although the expert found them to be in a "reasonable" state, he advised some improvements, which VCC followed. The college completely replaced the fire alarm systems at both of the older campus buildings with current technology. It also held many fire and earthquake drills, consistent with the B.C.'s government emergency preparedness standards.

Kalanj, of the VCC student union, agrees that matters have improved lately. She sits on VCC's emergency preparedness committee, and says Kathy Kinloch, who took over as president in March 2010, is "a radical change" from her predecessor Dorn, and "I can't believe those problems would happen on her watch. She's far more open and consultative."

VCC's former presidents, such as Dorn and others, could not be reached for comment. Larry Waddell, who worked at VCC from 1994 to 2007 and was facilities manager for several years, refused to talk to the Courier other than to say, "I don't agree with the audit, and I don't think that student safety was put at risk. It wouldn't be right for me to talk about this."

Industry Canada's website notes that Alex Brent Douglas is the longtime manager of KD Engineering Company of Burnaby, established in 1967 and now has 40 employees. "Douglas was our contact at KD Engineering throughout the contract period," wrote Legg. "The KD on-site employees would have reported up to him."

Douglas has a Chemistry B.Sc. from UBC (1991), and is a member in good standing with the B.C. Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists. He did not reply to the Courier's many emails, faxes and phone messages requesting an interview.

In its 2006 publicity, KD Engineering states that "Within the past ten years alone we have commissioned in excess of 200 different projects and balanced over 3,000 buildings and renovations." Its completed and ongoing projects included the YVR New International Airport Terminal, Tower Control, and Expansions, hospitals such as Surrey Memorial, Langley Memorial, Vancouver General, St. Paul's, Royal Columbian, and many more, UBC, SFU, BCIT, General Motors Place Arena, Canada Place Trade and Convention Center & Expansion, Concord Pacific Place (residential towers), and the Annacis Island Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Despite losing VCC, KD is still servicing another college. In 1994, the Langara Campus separated from VCC to form Langara College, yet it retained KD as its building manager. To this day, KD provides the day-to-day operation of Langara's physical plant, which involves all the mechanical heating and cooling systems plus plumbing and electrical.

Langara put its building maintenance contract out to tender (most recently in 2009), KD won the process, and its Langara contract expires in 2015. The college paid the company $804,782 in 2010/11. "We were aware of the VCC audit but no details had been given to Langara," said Langara spokesman Ian Humphreys. "We are not aware of any of these complaints happening at Langara and we have confidence in the engineers working on this site for KD Engineering."

The VCC audit still has value as a cautionary tale. Could such a situation as described in it happen again? Perhaps, says Gregory Thomas, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who adds he has never seen anything like the VCC case before, but he is ultimately not surprised by it. "There is not the level of oversight in these public institutions that we see in the private sector," he said. "It's incumbent on all the public, and not just the students who are harmed by this, to insist on more accountability."

To see the audit and other reports, visit vancourier.com.

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College brass ignored VCC health hazards

Letter by Michael Szaz, Vancouver Courier, July 8, 2011

To the editor:

Re: "Violations 101," June 24.

I read Stanley Tromp's article with a certain sardonic pleasure. It gave the financial and organizational profile with succinct clarity. But there is also the human perspective.

I'd worked at Vancouver Community Collage's King Edward Campus as an instructor since before we moved to the building on Broadway in 1983. The whole campus - except the fifth floor where the administration offices are - is a sealed building, with no windows that open. Students, instructors and staff continually complained about the air quality on campus. Many claimed to suffer daily from headaches, dizziness and low energy. People had extended colds and other respiratory illnesses. The administration pretty well dismissed our concerns, even suggesting that the problems were psychological. We were also told that only a certain portion of the air was being recycled by the air conditioning system -for economic reasons.

My department, Basic Education, was on the second floor, right above the diesel department. At times the diesel fumes were so bad, instructors had to let students take a break outside in the quadrangle just to get some fresh air. On rare occasions we let students go home. Because of the sealed building and no classroom door opening to the outdoors, it was difficult to let outside air in to clear the atmosphere inside. At the best of times, the air in our classrooms and offices was stale and low in oxygen. You had to go outside to get your senses back.

At the same time, fifth-floor administrators could open their windows if they felt like a blast of fresh air. We'd presented repeated requests, complaints and evidence about "sick building syndrome" to the administration and the college board. It all fell on deaf ears.

All the time we were told that the air had been tested by WCB, and that letting in fresh air was not feasible. I don't remember an administrator ever descending from the fifth floor to sniff the air students, instructors and staff had to breathe.

One has to wonder what the long-term health hazards of low oxygen levels, uncleaned air ducts, diesel fumes and carbon monoxide poisoning might be. We've had decades of it. I wonder especially since after I retired, our pension plan no longer pays for our health benefits. Could should - there be a class action suit?

Michael Szasz,

Vancouver

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