Federal Indifference Keeps Safety Standards on Ice

Lawmakers could protect millions of people who use skating rinks with simple legislation. What’s stopping them?

The author drives a Zamboni ice resurfacer at the John and Dede Howard Ice Arena in St. Joseph, Mich. Propane-powered resurfacers, like the one pictured, can emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide in indoor facilities if not properly ventilated.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Oct. 2, 2013, 3:07 a.m.

What if the gov­ern­ment could craft a rule that would make mil­lions of people safer, re­duce car­bon emis­sions, and come with the sup­port of the in­dustry it reg­u­lates? It isn’t a pipe dream—three states have had it on the books for years—but there ap­pears to be no mo­mentum for such le­gis­la­tion on the fed­er­al level.

The rule? Man­dat­ory test­ing of car­bon-monox­ide levels at in­door ice rinks. Much like a car left run­ning in the gar­age, the emis­sions giv­en off by ice re­sur­facers—bet­ter known as Zam­boni ma­chines after the name of their most pop­u­lar brand—can be harm­ful if not prop­erly vent­il­ated. The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency has is­sued warn­ings about these car­bon-monox­ide and ni­tro­gen-di­ox­ide dangers, but only Mas­sachu­setts, Min­nesota, and Rhode Is­land have taken steps to keep skat­ing rinks safe.

It’s not as if the prob­lem is a new one. In 2009, ES­PN re­por­ted that 200 people had been sickened by car­bon monox­ide at ice rinks in a six-month span. Tests by the net­work found that nearly a third of rinks us­ing fossil fuel-powered re­sur­facers had haz­ard­ous levels of car­bon monox­ide, ni­tro­gen di­ox­ide, or ul­trafine particles. A 2011 fea­ture by NBC’s Today Show re­por­ted on one in­cid­ent that saw 60 people hos­pit­al­ized and found that more than 250 people had suffered from car­bon-monox­ide pois­on­ing over the pre­vi­ous two years. Mean­while, STAR Rinks, a na­tion­wide in­dustry or­gan­iz­a­tion, es­tim­ates there are 2,000 in­door rinks in the coun­try.

Su­z­anne Con­don, as­so­ci­ate com­mis­sion­er for health at the Mas­sachu­setts De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health, helped write that state’s in­door ice-rink air qual­ity law in 1997. Child­hood asthma rates, she said, were the im­petus for the reg­u­la­tion. “You used to be able to look down that row of kids on the bench [dur­ing youth hockey games], and prob­ably a third of those kids were us­ing in­halers,” she said.

Con­don isn’t the only one who has seen the ef­fect of test­ing laws. In Rhode Is­land, arena man­agers have been re­quired to take daily car­bon-monox­ide read­ings since 1990, with man­dated cor­rect­ive ac­tions for spe­cif­ic levels. That has boos­ted aware­ness of car­bon-monox­ide is­sues and helped rinks fix their prob­lems, said Joseph Wendelken, a spokes­man for the state’s De­part­ment of Health. “After the law, I re­ceived no more com­plaints of head­aches from hockey refs and fig­ure-skat­ing judges,” he said.

The rules are even tough­er in Min­nesota. Earli­er this year, it beefed up its air-qual­ity stand­ards for rinks, which have been on the books since 1973. The state now has the low­est al­lowed car­bon-monox­ide and ni­tro­gen-di­ox­ide levels in the coun­try. Over the past year, the state has seen just 2 per­cent of ice rinks ex­ceed­ing the man­dated level, said Dan Tranter, su­per­visor of the Min­nesota De­part­ment of Health’s In­door Air Unit. That num­ber has jumped to 10 per­cent since the stricter rule took ef­fect in May, but Tranter ex­pects it to come down once rinks grow ac­cus­tomed to the new stand­ard.

Air-qual­ity com­pli­ance has been even more uni­ver­sal in Mas­sachu­setts, Con­don said. “We tested a vari­ety of rinks in the mid-‘90s. We did see el­ev­ated levels of car­bon monox­ide and ni­tro­gen di­ox­ide,” she said. Now? “It’s been at least a few years since we’ve even seen a level that was above the cor­rect­ive ac­tion lim­it.”

In the ES­PN in­vest­ig­a­tion, car­bon-monox­ide levels were found to be roughly 10 times high­er in states that had no test­ing re­quire­ments. In non-test­ing states, 11 of the 22 rinks sur­veyed found car­bon-monox­ide levels ex­ceed­ing Min­nesota’s best-in-the-na­tion stand­ard of 20 parts per mil­lion. In the three states with test­ing re­quire­ments, none of 12 rinks tested ex­ceeded nine parts per mil­lion. 

And it’s not as if the pub­lic-safety be­ne­fits have come at the ex­pense of an in­dustry, nor have they met much op­pos­i­tion from those who are forced to com­ply. “By and large our aren­as … are ac­cept­ing of the rules,” Tranter said. “They want to en­sure a safe en­vir­on­ment for their pat­rons.”

Arena man­agers backed that up. Al­most a dozen op­er­at­ors in Rhode Is­land and Mas­sachu­setts re­spon­ded to a sur­vey dis­trib­uted by the North East Ice Skat­ing Man­agers As­so­ci­ation for Na­tion­al Journ­al. None said the test­ing re­quire­ments had been a fin­an­cial or lo­gist­ic­al bur­den, and most said the stand­ards were an im­port­ant safety meas­ure. Many ex­pressed hope that oth­er states would fol­low suit. An­oth­er man­ager in New Hamp­shire vol­un­tar­ily paid for auto­mated test­ing equip­ment to meet the Mas­sachu­setts stand­ard, a move he said was made to ad­dress both safety and li­ab­il­ity con­cerns.

STAR Rinks tells it mem­bers to es­tab­lish test­ing stand­ards, even if their state doesn’t man­date mon­it­or­ing. “[Car­bon-monox­ide and ni­tro­gen-di­ox­ide] pois­on­ing are a real pos­sib­il­ity at any ice rink that uses fossil-fueled ice re­sur­facers,” its web­site says. “STAR strongly re­com­mends that all ice rink op­er­at­ors im­ple­ment an air qual­ity mon­it­or­ing pro­gram.”

So why no ap­pet­ite for fed­er­al le­gis­la­tion? “It’s hard to un­der­stand,” Con­don said, adding that lack of aware­ness has res­ul­ted in little pres­sure for new rules.

In 2002, EPA tightened emis­sions stand­ards for new re­sur­facers, but many ma­chines pred­at­ing that rule are still in op­er­a­tion—and even the im­proved mod­els can cause prob­lems in rinks that are not prop­erly vent­il­ated. EPA reg­u­lat­ors did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment; aides to en­vir­on­ment­al poli­cy­makers in the House in­dic­ated that no le­gis­la­tion is in the works.

But there may yet be hope for fed­er­al pres­sure on the is­sue. After sev­er­al days of in­quiry by NJ, an aide to a high-rank­ing sen­at­or who deals with en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues in­dic­ated a pair of sen­at­ors con­tac­ted for this story are now plan­ning to hold a hear­ing to in­vest­ig­ate the is­sue.

Pasco County Tax Col­lect­or Mike Fas­ano saw firsthand the dif­fi­culty of passing new reg­u­la­tions. Fas­ano made two at­tempts to pass ice-rink air qual­ity stand­ards while he was a Re­pub­lic­an state sen­at­or in Flor­ida. Both died in com­mit­tee. At least one of those fail­ures was the res­ult of the state House fail­ing to take up a com­pan­ion meas­ure, fueled by an­ti­reg­u­lat­ory sen­ti­ment, said Fas­ano’s former chief le­gis­lat­ive as­sist­ant Greg Giord­ano. “It was a philo­soph­ic­al is­sue,” Giord­ano said. “Lead­er­ship was say­ing, ‘Do we want to give gov­ern­ment even more abil­ity to go in­to a private busi­ness [and reg­u­late]?’ … I don’t think any­one would have come out and said, ‘Oh, I don’t want chil­dren to be healthy.’ “

Fas­ano and Giord­ano did claim a small vic­tory when the trouble­some loc­al rink that had spurred the le­gis­la­tion switched to an elec­tric re­sur­facer. That has be­come a trend in the in­dustry, state reg­u­lat­ors said, es­pe­cially in test­ing-law states where mak­ing the switch can elim­in­ate com­pli­ance is­sues. In Mas­sachu­setts and Rhode Is­land, three quar­ters of the rink man­agers con­tac­ted for this story re­por­ted us­ing elec­tric re­sur­facers, and most cited air qual­ity as a reas­on for the pur­chase.

“We have seen an in­crease in elec­tric ma­chine sales in those states with re­quired test­ing,” said Frank Zam­boni, the grand­son of the ice re­sur­facer’s in­vent­or and the ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent of Zam­boni Co., the Ca­na­dian sis­ter com­pany of the Para­mount, Cal­if.-based man­u­fac­turer.

While elec­tric re­sur­facers are 35 per­cent to 40 per­cent more ex­pens­ive, he said, cheap­er op­er­at­ing costs can off­set the ini­tial pur­chase price. Zam­boni de­clined to weigh in on po­ten­tial le­gis­la­tion or reg­u­la­tion, but he did em­phas­ize the crit­ic­al need for air-qual­ity test­ing. “It really isn’t our place to state a pref­er­ence between vol­un­tary and man­dated emis­sion test­ing; we simply feel that it is im­port­ant that it be done on a daily basis while the ice rink is in op­er­a­tion,” Zam­boni said.

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