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'I'm a victim, too,' B.C. mushroom farm owner tells inquest

Van Thi Truong lies on the ground after colliding with a photographer as her husband, Langley mushroom farm owner Ha Quan Truong, centre right, reacts while leaving an inquest into the 2008 deaths on their farm, in Burnaby, B.C., on Wednesday.

Darryl Dick for The Globe and Mail/darryl dick The Globe and Mail

The owner of a Langley, B.C., mushroom farm where three workers were killed, told their weeping family members at a coroners' inquest that he was also a victim.

Ha Quan Truong spent most of his testimony Wednesday blaming his manager, engineering consultants, and the Township of Langley for not fixing the problems on his farm that led to the release of gas that killed three workers and injured two more.

"Don't consider me as an enemy, I'm a victim, too," he said through an interpreter, when the lawyer for the family members asked if he had anything to say to them.

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Mr. Ha Quan said that after 30 years of working in Canada, he has now lost everything.

The legal fees resulting from the horrific accident on Sept. 5, 2008, have taken all of his money and he is not sure whether he will be able to keep his property, he said.

He felt suicidal for months after the accident, he told the inquest.

Mr. Ha Quan also considered suing the Township of Langley and said he would have tried if he wasn't bankrupt.

"They did not work with me, they did not help me solve the problem," he said. "They tried to sabotage me and the workers."

The inquest learned that the farmer's composting facility had been operating without an occupancy permit and the Township of Langley had been trying to shut down the composting facilities for two years before the accident.

The township obtained a B.C. Supreme Court order on June 12, 2007, to have the composting facilities cease operation until the facility passed a final inspection.

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But after Mr. Ha Quan temporarily closed the operation for repairs, he resumed operating without obtaining a permit, leading to a second court action by the township.

The inquiry heard that an agreement had been reached between Mr. Ha Quan's lawyers and the township to have the composting facilities cease operating on Sept. 6, 2008, the day after the gas leak.

But despite the agreement for the closing the next day, the facilities were still operating as usual on Sept. 5 and a repair crew was even called in for a clogged pipe.

While workers were waiting for McRae's Septic Tank Services to arrive, they attempted to unclog the pipe themselves, which lead to the fatal release of gas.

Scott Neilson, counsel for the province's workers compensation board, asked why.

"What I don't understand is, why were those men in the shed trying to unclog the pipe?"

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Mr. Ha Quan testified that he did not know.

Earlier this week, the inquiry heard that the workers had cut rusty bolts off a pipe and used a screwdriver to try to dislodge a clot of straw and manure from the pipe.

The lead WorkSafeBC investigator told the inquest Tuesday the resulting release of hydrogen sulfide could have killed or injured dozens of people, both workers and residents in the area, if the pipe had been completely unclogged.

Mr. Ha Quan testified that he left it up to the facility's manager to ensure safety procedures were being followed.

He said he hired D'Arcy Ashe away from Moneys Mushrooms, a leading mushroom supplier in the province, to look after his composing facility in 2005.

"I had the assumption that when I hired a manager … he would take care of everything."

It was the responsibility of Mr. Ashe and other consultants to help with writing the necessary permits and documents, the owner told the inquest.

"These people are all experts in the field, they have so much experience. I don't have experience in making compost."

Mr. Ha Quan said he didn't know why there wasn't an overflow alarm on the brown water tank used in the composting process or why there was no system for venting excess gas.

"This was the first time I've heard about it."

Mr. Ashe is scheduled to testify at the inquest Thursday.

Last November, a judge imposed fines of $350,000 on two companies, A1 Mushrooms and HV Truong, and their three owners, including Mr. Ha Quan, who pleaded guilty in 2011.

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