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Babine Forest Products will not face charges after 2012 sawmill fire

Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Investigators with B.C.'s workers' compensation board botched the largest probe in the organization's history, forcing the B.C. Crown to decide not to charge the operators of a Burns Lake sawmill that exploded two years ago, killing two men and injuring 20 others.

The Criminal Justice Branch said in a lengthy statement Friday the investigators found grounds to lay four regulatory charges against the operators of Babine Forest Products, owned by Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates and the Burns Lake Native Development Corp. They included failing to prevent the hazardous accumulation of material, failing to safely remove combustible dust, failing to ensure the health and safety of workers and failing to remedy hazardous workplace conditions.

But the charges can't be laid, the justice branch said, because the independent agency didn't treat the fire site as a possible crime site nor treated the investigation as a potential regulatory probe. Instead, the investigators treated it as a safety-compliance investigation and did not obtain a search warrant authorizing search and seizure at the Babine site, the Crown said.

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Important issues were left "partially or wholly unexamined," and "evidentiary deficiencies" constrained what the Crown could rely on to underpin any prosecution and hindered the Crown's ability to respond to Babine's likely defence, the statement said.

"Crown counsel has concluded that the manner in which (WorkSafeBC) conducted parts of its inspection/investigation would likely render significant evidence that it gathered inadmissible in court," said the 10-page Crown response

Jeff Dolan, investigations director with WorkSafeBC, issued a three-page statement in which he said the agency, since April, 2012, had adopted methods referenced by the Crown, and that it accepted the Crown conclusion.

"WorkSafeBC accepts Crown counsel's decision that no charges will be approved against Babine," Mr. Dolan said in his statement.

A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC said Mr. Dolan would not be available for comment until an investigation report is released next week.

WorkSafe investigators spent 13 weeks on the plant site gathering evidence, including 14,000 photographs and interviews with 100 workers, management and others as part of the largest scene examination in the organization's history, concluding there was a basis for at least four regulatory charges.

Expert opinion gathered by WorkSafeBC suggested airborne, combustible sawdust in the basement of the sawmill was somehow ignited, possibly by an open flame or electric arc, creating an initial dust explosion that spread.

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The inferno on Jan. 12, 2012, was a devastating blow to Burns Lake, located about 220 kilometres west of Prince George. The Babine Forest Products mill had been a mainstay of the local economy in the town of about 2,000 people since opening in 1974.

Mill reconstruction has been under way since 2013. The revived plant will begin operation next month, Babine said in a statement issued Friday.

Wilf Adam, chief of the Lake Babine Nation, said the revival of the plant is good news but that he was "very disappointed" by the legal shortcomings disclosed Friday.

"This bad thing happened in our community and nobody is going to be held accountable for it," he said in an interview.

A series of blasts and an ensuing fire at the mill on Jan. 20, 2012, killed Robert Luggi, 45, and 42-year-old Carl Charlie. Twenty other employees were injured and the mill was destroyed.

A few months later, in April, 2012, an explosion at the Lakeland Mills in nearby Prince George killed 43-year-old Alan Little and 46-year-old Glenn Roche.

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With reports from The Canadian Press

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