In 1985, an indoor swimming pool roof suspended with a grade of stainless steel known as Type 304 collapsed in Uster, Switzerland, killing 13 people.
Two years later, a roof beside an indoor pool in South Wales made from the same material also collapsed.
Structural cracking of Type 304 stainless steel was subsequently reported in indoor-pool roofs in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and four locations in the United States, according to a forensic engineering report by Testlabs International Ltd. in Winnipeg.
Municipal officials in Portage la Prairie didn’t know any of that history when they looked up at the ceiling of the Shindleman Aquatic Centre, built in 2010, and saw brownish-orange staining.
"You could see discolouration on the roof. We thought it was maybe rust," said David Sattler, general manager of Portage Regional Recreation Authority.
The forensic report found the discolouration of beams supporting the roof — made of Type 304 stainless steel — was corrosion, not rust. And in that corrosion were thousands of spidery stress cracks, some as long as 15 centimetres. Most were difficult to see.
The cracks were spreading and would eventually join, the report said.
"Stress-corrosion cracks can propagate quite rapidly, so that complete failure of the purlin (beam) can occur without previous warning," the report said.
"We were absolutely not prepared to be told it was not rust, but that it was stainless-steel corrosion cracking, and that the total roof could collapse," Sattler said.
The pool closed Nov. 1, 2016, before snow could pile onto the roof. It’s scheduled to reopen on Dec. 27, nearly 14 months later, in time for the Christmas break.
It will reopen with a new roof costing $1.9 million. Another $330,000 was paid in consulting and engineering fees.
The governments of the city and Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie are going after the builders and designers for all of it, and then some.
"We think all of those involved in the project that were responsible for these issues should be held accountable," Sattler said.
Eight companies are named in the suit. The task of the court will be to determine the validity of the Testlabs report and an additional one by KGS Group. Other professional assessments have been conducted, but they are not publicly available like the one commissioned by the Portage municipalities.
If the court agrees with the Testlabs report, and to a lesser extent KGS Group’s, it will then have to be determined who specified the use of Type 304 stainless steel.
Tower Engineering Group Ltd. of Winnipeg was the project manager for the construction of the $44-million sports and recreation complex Stride Place, where the aquatic centre is located.
"I’m really not worried about anything our firm did... It’s really for a judge to say who’s responsible," said Jack Abiusi, managing partner of Tower.
"I’m not worried, but I’m a little sad for the community. We stand behind our work. My only comment is it’s all coming out in the wash."
Abiusi added he’s confident the case will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved.
The case is scheduled for court in February. Tower Engineering is named in the suit alongside Stuart Olson Construction Ltd., Stantec Architecture Ltd., Stantec Consulting Ltd., Stantec Experts-Conseils Ltée., Ambassador Mechanical Corp. and Crane Steel Structures Ltd.
Stride Place is located at Portage’s Island Park on Crescent Lake. It opened in February 2010 and features two hockey arenas, an aquatic centre and a fitness centre.
Local municipal officials went all-in when they chose the Stride Centre design and built a rec centre much larger than is typical for a city of 13,000 people. It has hosted many major events and has had at least four movies shot on its premises.
It will host the best curlers in Canada for the Olympic mixed-curling trials from Jan. 2 to 7. It’s the first time mixed curling — duos of one man and one woman — is being held at the Olympics.
The Testlabs report determined chloramines from chlorine used to disinfect the pool contributed to the cracking. Stainless steel doesn’t like chloramines, and the condensation containing chloride was bonding to the beams. When the moisture evaporated, chloramine deposits stained and corroded the steel.
"Everyone uses stainless steel for a lot of applications, but one thing it’s not good for is structural uses in pool environments because of the chlorine," Sattler said.
A separate KGS Group report found the dehumidification system was inadequate and contributing to the problem. Humidity and heat up to 35 C were being trapped in the ceiling surrounding the stainless-steel beams.
A new dehumidification system was installed with the new roof. The aquatic centre now has an exhaust fan at roof level to blow out the chloride-contaminated air.
The entire roof had to be replaced. The beams are now made of a different kind of steel coated with layers of primer, epoxy and urethane that’s 14 mils thick.
Another problem is the heating system, which an engineering assessment determined is too small for the building. As a result, the boilers are blowing non-stop all winter.
"(They) just can’t keep up," said Sattler, noting it will be an expensive fix.
Other problems have been found with the rec centre’s construction and are listed in the statement of claim by the City of Portage and the RM of Portage, but they are of the smaller variety, Sattler said.
A Court of Queen’s Bench judge must first decide whether the suit can proceed. It was filed after the limitation period of six years; however, the law does allow a lawsuit to be filed if the plaintiff finds something wrong and files a statement of claim within a year of the discovery.
Money to replace the roof came from local government reserves, Portage Mayor Irvine Ferris said.
"We don’t believe taxpayers of Portage and the RM of Portage should have to pay for it," he said.
"We’re very happy David (Sattler) obtained a building assessment. You can imagine some snowy evening, and the facility filled with kids..." said Ferris, not finishing the thought.
The Shindleman Aquatic Centre features six 25-metre swim lanes, a large waterslide, a wave pool and a hot tub. It receives a high volume of recreation use, and a dedicated group of swimmers do laps before and after work.
Neighbouring Hutterite colonies rent the pool on a weekly basis. The aquatic centre also works with local schools in Portage and within an hour’s drive of the city.
Bill Redekop is the Free Press rambling rural reporter. His beat is a bit like the slow food movement of news gathering.
Updated on Monday, December 18, 2017 at 9:27 AM CST: Corrects reference to paint thickness.