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The Lakeland Sawmill in Prince George April 25, 2012 after a fire and explosion at the mill. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
The Lakeland Sawmill in Prince George April 25, 2012 after a fire and explosion at the mill. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Work begins on replacement for exploded B.C. sawmill Add to ...

Work has begun to replace a Prince George, B.C. sawmill levelled 15 months ago in an explosion that killed two employees and injured 22 others, with the city’s mayor saying the time has come to look forward.

The Lakeland Mills sawmill was destroyed in April, 2012, in what was described as a “giant fireball.” The blast was heard kilometres away.

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What caused the explosion has not been formally revealed and won’t be for some time yet, as WorkSafeBC – which eight months ago said it would forward its reports to the Crown – still hasn’t done so.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new mill, expected to open by late summer of 2014, was held Monday. Ed Langan, a loader operator who has been with Lakeland for nearly 40 years, used the heavy machine to scoop up a pile of dirt.

Mayor Shari Green, in an interview after the ceremony, said rebuilding the mill shows Prince George’s resilience and spirit.

“Everybody has grieved the loss of two valued members of our community who tragically died in the explosion. But today is a day for celebration of moving forward. And while we certainly will remember them, we know that we always need to move forward,” she said.

“So many people are very happy today to know that Lakeland will be back and will be thriving again as an important corporate community citizen.”

Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products, which owns Lakeland, said the company is committed to learning from the experience.

He said the mill will continue to produce stud lumber and will have a capacity of approximately 200 million board feet. Stud lumber is typically produced for new home construction. The mill will employ about 100 workers.

Much of the attention since the Lakeland explosion – and another blast at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C., in January, 2012, which also killed two people – has centred on the explosive risk of sawdust. WorkSafeBC has issued several bulletins about the increased risk from combustible dust.

Mr. Stewart said Monday that new equipment will mitigate the dust problem.

“You’re going to see more enclosures around pieces of equipment that are going to allow you to capture that dust,” he said in an interview.

WorkSafeBC announced last November that it would forward its reports on the two mill explosions to the Crown, setting the stage for fines and possible jail time under the Workers Compensation Act. The relatively rare decision disappointed mill owners, including Mr. Stewart, who said they had been hoping WorkSafeBC would release its report into the cause of the blasts.

WorkSafeBC said at the time the circumstances and consequences of the explosions were very serious.

However, Jeff Dolan, the organization’s director of investigation services, said work is still being done on referring the files to Crown. He said as many as 30 people have been working on the case at any given time, and tens of thousands of pages of evidence will be disclosed.

He said WorkSafeBC is “very close” to making its submission.

When asked why WorkSafeBC announced in November it would be forwarding the reports when it wasn’t yet in a position to do so, Mr. Dolan said it was to let people know the case was moving forward. He said the investigation’s timeline was appropriate for the amount of evidence.

Neil MacKenzie, a Crown spokesman, said this is not a simple file and it’s not unusual to see investigations that last for a significant period of time.

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