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burns lake

Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The future of Burns Lake's gutted sawmill is expected to be announced Tuesday. But those plans could be delayed or derailed by a decision last week by the provincial workplace safety agency that opens the door to possible charges related to the blast that destroyed the Babine Forest Products mill.

"It couldn't have been worse timing," said B.C. Liberal MLA John Rustad, who helped shape a government package designed to entice the mill's owners to rebuild.

The board of Hampton Affiliates, owners of the Babine mill, was scheduled to meet Monday, and the company's CEO Steve Zika is expected to announce the decision in Burns Lake on Tuesday, 11 months after a deadly explosion levelled the town's main source of employment.

The company announced in September it planned to rebuild, based on a tentative agreement with the province to provide it with fibre for the mill. Mr. Rustad said the final agreements were inked last week to provide enough timber in the long term to give the company a business case for rebuilding.

But the WorkSafe BC decision to forward its findings to Crown counsel casts a shadow over that effort. Those findings address two separate industrial accidents – the Burns Lake explosion in January that killed two people and injured 20, and an explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George in April that killed two workers and injured 22.

The agency is not referring the two cases as matters of criminal negligence, but as alleged violations of the provincial Workers Compensation Act, which could lead to fines and even jail time.

"From a company perspective, I'm sure Hampton was grateful to know [about the WorkSafe BC move] before they make a decision," Mr. Rustad said. "But the challenge is, where is it going?"

In the case of the Babine mill, the uncertainty also raises questions about whether the company would be able to collect on its insurance while the cause is still under investigation. The WorkSafe report has not been publicly released.

"They don't know whether the WorkSafe decision would impact on their insurance and their ability to proceed with construction," Mr. Rustad said. "They have as much certainty around the fibre as can be."

Norm Macdonald, the B.C. NDP forestry critic, said he supports the plan to provide the mill with timber, and said the company should not take any longer to make up its mind. "I should expect they would feel an obligation to the community to lay out their plans for the future. The extended wait for the community has been difficult."

Forests Minister Steve Thomson would not speculate on what the province will do for the community of Burns Lake if plans for a new mill are cancelled or put on hold. "There are lots of eyes on this, waiting for the statement," he said in an interview on Monday. "We feel as a province we made the commitments that provided the conditions for a positive decision."

However, Mr. Thomson still needs to deliver on legislation next spring that would give mills guaranteed access to timber. Promising a secure source of fibre for a new mill at Burns Lake is contentious because of the dwindling timber supply in the region.

An infestation of the mountain pine beetle that began in 1999 has devastated millions of hectares of land that were earmarked for timber harvest in B.C. Prompted by the incident at Burns Lake, the province announced an "action plan" that has determined there is more wood available for cutting than previously forecast.