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Lakeland Mills workers look for answers after tragic explosion

The Canfor sawmill in Quesnel brought in its last shipment of logs a few days ago. There is no need for more fibre, as the plant will be permanently shuttered in two weeks.

The closing is the inevitable result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. For years, sawmills in the province's central interior have been rushing to process the last of the viable wood.

The highly competitive race to wring every last dollar out of a dying forest provides the backstory of the two mills that exploded in 2012 just months apart.

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B.C. New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix met last week with injured workers and families of the four men who were killed in those two mill blasts.

There was a strong parallel between the accounts he heard from both the Lakeland Mills workers and those from Babine Forest Products. In the days before the explosions, there were concerns among workers about the accumulation of sawdust around the mills as cleanup crews were diverted to processing jobs. Some brought photographs to show him the worrisome conditions they had worked in.

"They felt, over a period of time, that issues of safety had been compromised by economic pressures," Mr. Dix said after an emotional, four-hour private meeting.

Investigations by WorkSafeBC and the B.C. Safety Authority blamed the owners of the Babine mill in Burns Lake for failing to recognize and manage wood-dust explosion hazards.

The investigations into the Lakeland Mills explosion in Prince George, which occurred four months later, won't be made public until after the province's Criminal Justice Branch decides whether charges against the mill's owners will proceed. But combustible dust has already been identified as the likely fuel for the explosion.

In the case of Babine, no charges were laid. The Criminal Justice Branch concluded that the investigation by WorkSafeBC was flawed. As a result, there is concern that charges against Lakeland's owners will also be abandoned by the Crown.

That is one of the frustrations Mr. Dix heard in the room. "There are documents from here to the end of the room, about what happened at Babine. Those will never be brought forward as evidence," he said in an interview. "It's an important symbol of why we need an independent review into what happened there."

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To date, the provincial government has rejected calls for a public inquiry. The only other avenue for further answers is a coroner's inquest into the deaths of the two men who died in the Babine explosion.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the inquest, which is expected to be held this fall, should provide the mill workers and their families with answers. Mill workers and management, firefighters and WorkSafeBC officials all will be called to testify, first-hand, about what they saw and did.

But the coroner's inquest is not intended to find fault, nor will it get into how WorkSafeBC's handling of the investigation resulted in no charges.

Ms. Lapointe says the inquest may still be enough to satisfy the families. "We recognize that the families really want to know what went on," she said. "There is probably a benefit in letting that process unfold and then, if there are still questions, looking at what other process is needed to fill those holes, if any."

One question – of many – that still deserves answers is an account of how the survivors were served in the aftermath of the two devastating incidents.

The workers and their families at both mills share similar stories of trauma over the past two years. The destruction didn't end when the fires burned out. The strains could be seen later, in failed relationships, in counselling services stretched thin.

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One of the most powerful accounts comes from a brief coroner's report, released Friday, into the death of Paul Judge. Mr. Judge, 47, was a long-time employee at the Lakeland mill, with no prior history of mental health concerns. He had never been involved in the criminal justice system. But after the blast, his emotional state fell apart. He was treated in hospital as a suicide risk. Later, he ended up in jail after a weapons altercation. In a jail cell, he sliced his neck with a razor and bled to death.

Mr. Judge sought help from his family doctor for anxiety and depression in the months after the blast. It does not appear, however, that he got the support he needed and deserved.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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