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Clark orders review of Burns Lake sawmill explosion

A closed gate at the Babine Forest Products Sawmill in Burns Lake on Dec. 5, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A WorkSafeBC investigation found ample evidence that combustible wood dust was creating a powder keg in a Burns Lake sawmill before it exploded in early 2012, killing two and injuring 20 in an accident the agency deemed "preventable."

But there will be no penalties for the operators of the mill in the village about 220 kilometres west of Prince George because the Crown says WorkSafeBC's investigation was so badly flawed – a situation that has prompted Premier Christy Clark to order a review into what happened.

While she welcomed Ms. Clark's announcement, the sister of one of the dead said the "preventable" observation, included in an 88-page investigation report released Thursday by WorkSafeBC, is a blow that is creating new agony for her family.

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"If it was preventable, how did it happen?" asked Lucy Campbell, the sister of Carl Charlie, a father of three, who died Jan. 20, 2012, at the Babine Forest Products mill along with Robert Luggi Jr., also a father of three.

The overview of one of the largest investigations in the history of the workers' compensation agency says operators of the sawmill were well aware of shortcomings in managing sawdust, which fuelled the devastating blast after it was sparked by equipment in the mill. "Effective actions should have been taken to control both the airborne dispersal of wood dust as well as the excessive accumulations on floors and surfaces. Such actions might have prevented this accident."

The report goes on to say, "The investigation shows that the explosion and fire that destroyed the sawmill constituted a preventable incident."

The owners of the mill, built in 1976 and employing 250 workers at the time of the disaster, knew the operation had an "undersized" system for collecting dust, but realized the improvements could not be made because the mill's power system was operating at maximum capacity, the report says. While preliminary work was underway on an electrical upgrade, "there was no reduction in production; in fact, production levels increased."

No "adequate actions" were taken to reduce or control airborne wood dust, although this was the "root cause" of an occupational health and safety violation cited in December, 2011 – a month before the disaster.

Ms. Campbell said she held WorkSafeBC and the operators of the mill responsible for the tragedy. Her family is considering legal action. "With all the laws in place, somebody messed up. It doesn't sit right with my family," she said in an interview. "It's hard to grasp, flipping through the papers and trying to get my head around this."

Ms. Clark said she has asked the head of the B.C. civil service, John Dyble, to review the investigation into the explosion. The Criminal Justice Branch ruled out regulatory charges against the mill operators, noting such flaws as the failure of WorkSafeBC investigators to inform witnesses of their Charter rights before taking statements and a failure to obtain search warrants.

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Still, WorkSafeBC is looking at options to levy fines against the operators. Babine Forest Products, which operates the mill, was acquired in 2006 by Portland, Ore.-based Hampton Affiliates. Calls to Hampton for comment were not returned Thursday.

Speaking at the annual B.C. Truck Loggers convention, Ms. Clark said the forest industry has a "fantastic" safety record but questions remain about why the Crown refused to lay charges based on the conduct of the WorkSafeBC investigation.

"We had a job to deliver the highest standards of investigation, to make sure justice was done and it was seen to be done," Ms. Clark said, adding she isn't second-guessing the independent Criminal Justice Branch. She later told reporters she ordered the "urgent review" of the investigation to quickly come up with possible lessons from the disaster.

Jeff Dolan, the head of investigations for WorkSafeBC, said he welcomed the review. "It's a good opportunity for the facts to be laid out in a clear and objective way," he said.

But Adrian Dix, Leader of the NDP opposition, said the review falls short because Mr. Dyble is not the independent party he has said should look at the situation. "What's required is to have someone indepdendent look at this and give advice."

There's a sense of urgency around issues involving the investigation because WorkSafeBC is to submit a report to Crown next month on an explosion at a Prince George sawmill three months after the Burns Lake incident. Mr. Dolan has said WorkSafeBC will be mindful of lessons in the Burns Lake submission in filing this new report.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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