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Mill explosion probes referred to Crown investigators

Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. on Jan. 22, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

WorkSafe BC has forwarded its reports on two mill explosions earlier this year to Crown counsel, setting the stage for possible fines and even jail time for violations of the provincial Workers Compensation Act.

The relatively rare decision by the workplace agency underscores the gravity of incidents that killed four people, injured dozens more and put mill operators and provincial authorities under a spotlight over issues such as wood dust levels and fire inspections.

"When WorkSafe BC comes to these decisions [to refer investigations to Crown counsel], they've been very serious circumstances and these are serious consequences," WorkSafe vice-president Roberta Ellis told reporters on a conference call Thursday.

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The referral to Crown counsel does not imply criminal negligence, she emphasized. "If WorkSafe BC had uncovered any evidence in regards to criminal activity, we would have forwarded that to the police," Ms. Ellis said.

An explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake in January killed two people and injured 20. A second explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George in April killed two workers and injured 22.

Mill owners on Thursday were disappointed with WorkSafe's decision, saying they had hoped its reports would answer questions that haunt the industry as well as the communities of Prince George and Burns Lake.

"It is critical for Lakeland and the industry to do everything we can to ensure that this never happens at another mill," Greg Stewart, president of Sinclair Group Forest Products, which owns Lakeland Mills, said Thursday in a statement. "We anticipated WorkSafe would release its report into the cause, so it is disappointing to learn that information is being withheld."

Portland, Ore.-based Hampton Affliliates and Burns Lake Native Development Corp., co-owners of Babine Forest Products mill, said they too had expected WorkSafe to release its investigations.

"We were surprised by this announcement and disappointed that we are not yet able to see the report of WorkSafe's findings so that we can fully understand what happened that tragic night of the explosion," Hampton chief executive officer Steve Zika said in a statement.

Under the Workers Compensation Act, WorkSafe has the authority to impose penalties of up to $1-million for a second offence. But the agency can also refer investigations to Crown counsel, which can impose penalties and also has the authority to seek imprisonment of up to six months for violations of the act. In addition, unlike WorkSafe – which can only discipline employers – the Crown can charge both individuals and corporations. Ms. Ellis would not say what parts of the act are involved but said violations can relate to matters such as supervision, training and inspections.

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If the Crown does not pursue charges under the act, the investigation would revert to WorkSafe.

WorkSafe's decision to refer the cases to the Crown means that its investigations into the incidents will not be publicly released at this point. But the agency has been sharing safety-related information it gleaned from the investigations as the investigations proceeded, Ms. Ellis said.

Since the second mill explosion, WorkSafe has issued several bulletins, including an Oct. 30 hazard alert about the increased risk from combustible dust in winter conditions.

The board of Hampton and Affiliates was set to meet next week to decide if the company will rebuild the mill. In September, the company said it would rebuild the mill if it could work out details with the province and local first nations.

Only about a dozen investigations have been referred to counsel since 1999, Ms. Ellis said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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