Norwich ice rink testing to delay reopening

Norwich - The Norwich Municipal Ice Rink cannot reopen for at least three weeks, and only then if pressure tests being done today on the more than 300 tubes in the cooling system come back positive.

The Ice Rink Authority discussed three major issues Thursday, including the latest equipment damage that forced the rink to close May 6 for the second time in three months. A month before the latest breakdown, rink employees sent an anonymous complaint to the state Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety division citing unsafe conditions, lack of training and lack of confidence in the rink authority.

The labor department is investigating the complaint and has visited the rink.

Authority Chairman Francois "Pete" Desaulniers said an inspection showed the May 6 shutdown was caused by failure of one leaking tube - not one of the four tubes repaired after the Feb. 13 shutdown. But the rink's insurance company, Travelers Insurance, insisted on a complete pressure test of the approximately 340 tubes. If more than 10 percent of the tubes fail, Travelers will insist that the entire system be replaced.

Test results aren't expected for another week. Desaulniers said. In the best-case scenario, if the system passes, the rink can reopen two weeks later.

Even before the first breakdown, the authority had planned to seek bids to replace the aging cooling system. The city received four bids for design and engineering last week, ranging in price from $48,500 to $96,000. Three ice cooling system experts have volunteered to help review the bids.

The authority will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the rink with Gabriel Stern, director of strategic planning and technical services for the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative; Phil Siena, a rink maintenance specialist for the Connecticut College ice rink; and John Berley, president of Everything Ice of Johnstown, Pa., to review the bids.

Desaulniers said the East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Department has offered to schedule training sessions for employees in evacuation, fire extinguisher use and ammonia handling. In their letter to the state, the maintenance employees cited lack of training in those areas.

During the Feb. 13 incident, controversy erupted when Desaulniers said he ordered former rink manager Mia Sanca by phone to evacuate the building when the ammonia leak started. The building was not evacuated until East Great Plain fire crews arrived.

Authority members said despite the mechanical setbacks and the uncertainty about today's tube test, they felt confident the rink can rebound from its financial and mechanical problems. Prior to the Feb.13 shutdown, the rink had been on track to finish the fiscal year with a small surplus. The authority budgeted for a $15,000 surplus next fiscal year, assuming a year of full operation.

The rink has been running with annual subsidy loans from the city that now total $328,000. Desaulniers said before the setbacks, he felt the rink could have paid back the entire loan within three to five years.

"One way or another, we'll get this rink going," Desaulniers said, "because this rink is an asset to the community."

c.bessette@theday.com

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