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Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Three people are in hospital following an explosion and fire at a Burns Lake wood pellet plant, again focusing public attention on the need for improved safety in the industry.

The blast happened at about 8 a.m. Thursday, originating inside a piece of equipment used to dry fibre, said Leroy Reitsma, president and chief operating officer of Pinnacle Renewable Energy Group. Three workers suffered serious, but non-life-threatening injuries.

It is not yet known what caused the accident. The plant was shut down for maintenance at the time and there were about 30 employees on site. Two WorkSafeBC officers, who arrived at the facility around noon on Thursday, will work to determine what happened and how such an event can be prevented in the future. Mr. Reitsma said Pinnacle will be conducting its own investigation as well.

"The big focus right now is on how our employees got exposed to this," he said. "The fire itself was quickly contained. There was no equipment damage – it wasn't something of a force that resulted in damage – but the key focus is on our employees and their exposure: what the root cause was of this occurring."

On June 17, WorkSafeBC conducted an inspection of Pinnacle's Burns Lake pellet plant that focused on combustible dust issues, according to Scott McCloy, a spokesman for the worker-protection agency. It was determined that such issues were being managed and no orders were written as a result of that inspection.

However, WorkSafeBC has issued 11 inspection reports and written 13 orders on the facility since 2013, with several related to combustible dust.

Two of them were written on May 20, when WorkSafeBC found hazardous levels of primary and secondary dust at the plant that could cause a fire or explosion. For those two orders, Pinnacle was required to pay a total of nearly $98,000.

Mr. McCloy noted that in WorkSafeBC's last major inspection of manufacturing plants, conducted between April and mid-June, the industry's compliance rate was at about 40 per cent.

"I don't know whether [Thursday's incident] was combustible dust related, but this is an industry with some safety challenges," Mr. McCloy said.

Shirley Bond, the minister responsible for workplace safety, told reporters in Victoria that her government has recently taken steps to improve compliance and enforcement in the wood pellet sector. "Progress has been made. Tragically, it does not prevent workplace accidents from happening."

She acknowledged that Thursday's incident will be especially difficult for the community of Burns Lake, which was devastated by a deadly sawmill explosion two years ago. "It is upsetting and very difficult … for this community to have another incident," she said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with those workers and families."

Last June Ms. Bond promised to adopt 43 recommendations for changes to WorkSafeBC in the wake of two deadly sawmill explosions. The changes include more frequent inspections of forest products plants, tougher penalties and a more robust investigation team. The province's 10 pellet mills in particular have been targeted, after WorkSafeBC inspections found low rates of compliance with safety regulations.

Gordon Murray, executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada, said his industry has already started working to improve its safety and compliance record particularly around the management of combustible dust since a report last June cited the industry for poor performance.

Although the cause of the incident on Thursday is not known, "there is no doubt that everybody is looking at combustible dust," he said in an interview. "There will be heightened scrutiny and we will be under pressure and we'll have to do a better job."

A January, 2012, explosion at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake killed two workers and injured 20. Months later, an explosion at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George killed two and injured 22. WorkSafeBC investigations found the conditions for a wood-dust explosion existed in both mills. The agency recommended regulatory charges be laid, but the Crown refused in both cases, saying WorkSafeBC had botched the investigations.

A later probe by senior deputy minister John Dyble found WorkSafeBC was warned for years that its investigative methods might prompt Charter concerns, but it did not change its practices. This summer, WorkSafeBC established a new investigation unit.

Maureen Luggi, whose husband, Robert, died in the 2012 Burns Lake sawmill explosion, said she raced to the Pinnacle plant on Thursday morning.

"Fear grips you immediately when news like Pinnacle Pellet blowing up comes to you," she said. "I went out to see what was true for myself. Situations like this raise concern and bring back the memories of that night of January 20, 2012." "My prayers are for the injured workers and also for accountability for this plant."

Ms. Luggi has been pressing the provincial government to hold a public inquiry into the mill explosions but the government has refused. Instead, a coroner's inquest will look at the deaths of the workers at both sawmills.

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