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British Columbia Minister pushes tougher penalties for sawmills that don’t meet sawdust rules

Smoke rises as police tape surrounds Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Jan. 21, 2012 after an explosion at the sawmill killed two workers and injured 20 others.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond has turned her sights on sawmill owners who have shunned a voluntary industry safety group, warning that she wants tougher consequences for those companies that don't comply with new regulations designed to reduce the risk of explosive sawdust.

Ms. Bond met for 90 minutes with industry officials Monday to demand better compliance with sawdust rules – the legacy of two deadly mill explosions triggered by the buildup of combustible dust.

Missing from the table were scores of independent mill owners who have not joined with the major forestry companies in adopting an industry-drafted set of standards. Of the 144 active sawmills in B.C., only 55 mills have signed on to the safety campaign.

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Two companies, Canfor and West Fraser Timber, have invested a combined total of $34-million to improve sawdust controls in their B.C. operations. Their CEOs have led a safety group that has developed voluntary audits to ensure that mills reach compliance with new regulations around sawdust.

"The culture has changed dramatically," said James Gorman, president of the Council of Forest Industries. "What has gone over the past number of months, it feels different going into the mills with respect to how combustible dust is being managed."

Those voluntary changes are taking place in mills representing 70 per cent of the entire sawmill capacity in the province, but Ms. Bond wants the owners of the other 89 mills to be rounded up and brought to the table in the next couple of weeks.

"One thing that is a concern to me," Ms. Bond told reporters Monday, "how do we ensure that every sawmill owner understands the necessity to make this their Number One priority."

Even some of the biggest mill owners were found to be failing safety inspections during WorkSafeBC's latest inspection blitz, however, and now Ms. Bond is looking at tougher punishment.

Ms. Bond said financial penalties available to the workplace safety regulator are not likely stiff enough to force compliance. She is encouraging WorkSafeBC to use its ability to halt production in the face of unsafe working conditions.

"I said to mill owners, I would think for many of you that penalty is not that significant a consequence. But shutting down your mill is," she said.

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Government, industry and regulators are responding to a pair of explosions, just months apart, that took place two years ago.

B.C.'s chief coroner, responding to growing pressure for a public inquiry into the mill explosion in Burns Lake, announced Monday she will preside over the inquest that will be held this fall to examine the deaths of the two workers who didn't make it out, Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr.

It's an unusual move for Lisa Lapointe, who has not conducted an inquiry since she was appointed chief coroner three years ago.

But she said her decision was driven by the strong public interest in the case, which will broadly look at sawmill safety in B.C.

Ms. Lapointe is also dispatching her most senior counsel, lawyer John Orr, to meet with the families involved in the Babine Forest Products explosion, to assure them that he will be at the inquest to represent their interests.

"I am confident that a coroner's inquest is the best venue to address the many concerns and questions raised about how and why the explosion happened," the coroner told a news conference in Victoria. She expects to call management from the mill to testify under oath, as well as the WorkSafeBC officials responsible for investigating the case.

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Harry Bains, the NDP critic for worker safety, maintains the broader inquiry is still needed because the inquest will not address why no charges were laid against the owners of the Babine mill. A WorkSafeBC investigation concluded that the mill's owners were responsible for the incident but the province's Criminal Justice Branch declined to lay charges, saying the investigation had been botched.

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