The injured and families of those killed when a Burns Lake sawmill blew up two years ago are angrily looking for accountability after the Crown ruled out criminal or regulatory charges against the mill’s operators because of a flawed investigation.
Despite the largest probe in WorkSafeBC’s history, the effort fell short in several areas, such as failing to obtain search warrants and inform witnesses of their Charter rights, prompting B.C.’s criminal justice branch last week to declare it could not secure convictions if it went to court.
Lucy Campbell, whose brother Carl Charlie was killed in the blast, said hearing the news was like re-experiencing the events of Jan. 20, 2012, when she heard about the disaster at the mill.
“There’s no room for error when it takes my brother’s life,” she said, referring to the legal shortcomings the Crown found in WorkSafeBC’s investigation.
“Our family is disgusted, disheartened, heartbroken all over again.”
In a statement issued Monday night, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton ruled out an independent probe of the Crown's ruling on the WorkSafeBC probe.
She said she was confident the Crown had conducted a "thorough and careful" review of the matter.
Mr. Charlie and co-worker Robert Luggi were killed in the blast and fire at the Babine Forest Products sawmill and 20 others were injured – a devastating blow to the village of about 2,000 located about 220 kilometres west of Prince George.
Ms. Campbell recalled that when she explained the legal problems to her parents, they reacted with awe – her mother noting it was remarkable that laws protect pets, but not sawmill workers in a case such as this.
She said she “100 per cent” supports calls on Monday by the NDP’s Adrian Dix, leader of the official opposition, for an independent review of the situation.
Jeff Dolan, investigations director for WorkSafeBC, has said he accepts the Crown’s findings in the Babine case, and noted that WorkSafeBC is taking the situation into account as it prepares to file an investigation report next month with the Crown on a sawmill explosion and fire in Prince George two months after the disaster at Burns Lake. That blast killed two workers and injured two dozen.
WorkSafeBC is planning this week to release an 88-page overview of its Burns Lake investigation to help those in the community further understand the situation.
Maureen Luggi said it was “extremely painful” to hear no charges would be laid in her husband’s death.
“I was hoping that we would have some sort of peaceful closure and justice for the manner in which my husband died,” she said. “I thought that this could be a process that we could rely on, and that someone in authority would help us, and support us in achieving closure. That didn’t happen.”
Derek MacDonald, who was sent to hospital in Vancouver due to his injuries in the blast, said members of the community are in shock.
“After what we’ve gone through, what we’ve endured the last two years, after all the surgeries, the physio that everyone has gone through, someone has to be held accountable,” Mr. MacDonald said on Monday. “I’m not going to call it an accident, because it wasn’t an accident.”
Expert opinion gathered by WorkSafeBC suggested airborne combustible sawdust in the basement of the Burns Lake sawmill was ignited, possibly by an open flame or electric arc, creating a dust explosion that spread.
Kathleen Weissbach, whose husband was injured in the fire, called the news devastating.
“It was like a dam broke. I cried. I just lost it,” she said in an interview, noting the wives of victims had no support for such services as counselling. “We don’t have the money to pay for it. I took a year off work to take care of my husband.”
But Bruce Disher, who was a welder at the sawmill for 33 years, said there is ambivalence in Burns Lake over the situation.
“About 75 per cent [in the community] wish charges would be laid. The other 25 per cent have got their jobs back and don’t want [the mill] shut down because it is the only major industry we have in the town,” he said.
“There’s a real mixed feeling here of uncertainty, and what would have happened if charges were laid.”