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Potential danger at other B.C. mills widely discussed in Burns Lake after explosion

Flowers lie outside Lakeland Sawmill in Prince George, B.C., April 25, 2012 to remember the two people who died after a fire and explosion at the mill.

John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

Vinh Nguyen was half a world away, vacationing in Vietnam, when he learned B.C. had been hit by its second sawmill explosion in three months.

Mr. Nguyen had travelled to Vietnam to escape memories of the blast at the mill in Burns Lake in January. The 27-year-old was working as a security officer when the fiery explosion killed two workers. He suffered first- and second-degree burns to his face, hand and wrist. His doctor eventually cleared him to travel, and Mr. Nguyen was starting to go long stretches of time without recalling his desperate escape from the burning building.

When family members first told him over Skype about this week's explosion and fire in Prince George, Mr. Nguyen thought he had misheard. "I just couldn't believe another explosion happened at another mill," he said.

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Mr. Nguyen is among the many British Columbians who are asking why it took a second catastrophe – and two more deaths – for the government to spring into action to address the threat of a disaster fuelled by sawdust.

The answer is that government officials and others presumed that the tragedy at Burns Lake was a confluence of circumstances unlikely to occur at any other B.C. sawmill.

Margaret MacDiarmid, the province's Labour Minister, said the Burns Lake fire had appeared to be unique, pointing to the cold snap in January that had forced the mill to close its windows, increasing the hazard of a dust explosion. "Clearly, we were wrong, and another terrible explosion has happened," she said.

There has been a flurry of official activity since the blast at Lakeland Mills Ltd. on Monday night. The province and WorkSafeBC have launched an unprecedented review of all sawmills in B.C. The mills have been ordered to remove accumulated dust – a possible cause of the explosions. A working group of representatives of unions, industry and WorkSafeBC was formed to study best safety practices, and new regulations for combustible dust could be issued next week.

It's a marked difference from the aftermath of the Babine Forest Products mill fire in Burns Lake. WorkSafeBC has just completed the first phase of its investigation into that blaze and no report or recommendations have been issued. Any safety equipment upgrades or protocol changes by mills were ad hoc, as there was no formal directive.

Premier Christy Clark, during a visit to a Prince George fire hall to meet with emergency responders, defended that initial response. "I think we were waiting to see what result we would get back from the [Burns Lake]investigation once it was finished," she said.

Workers, industry experts and media have for months pointed to the cutting of wood harvested from forests ravaged by the mountain pine beetle as a possible explanation. The wood produces a fine, dry sawdust that is more susceptible to explosions than the normal, wetter timber.

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Despite all the speculation, no preliminary findings or orders were issued before the Lakeland explosion, which killed two people and sent 24 to hospital in all.

A Burns Lake worker, who asked not to be identified, said potential danger at other mills was widely discussed in the community after the first explosion – a concern that was passed on to WorkSafe investigators.

"I know after the first explosion at Babine, a lot of us were talking among ourselves and to the WorkSafeBC people and said, 'If it is a sawdust explosion due to dry pine-beetle wood, we have how many mills in B.C. that are cutting the same product with the same machinery? It's a disaster waiting to happen,'" the worker said, adding they stressed the word "if."

Brian Skakun, a Prince George city councillor who works as a steam manager in a local pulp mill, said there was nothing to prevent WorkSafeBC from acting immediately after the Burns Lake explosion in some capacity.

MLA Bob Simpson, who worked more than a decade on the floor of sawmills and as a mill executive overseeing plants in B.C. and Alberta, said much the same.

"What could have been done between the Burns Lake situation and the Lakeland is there was enough anecdotal information, enough buzz, to suggest that we may have a situation that was new and related to the sawdust buildup," said Mr. Simpson, a former New Democrat who now sits as an independent member for Cariboo North.

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He said his "gut reaction" is that sawdust buildup is the key, based on his own experience and information he has received from mill employees.

WorkSafeBC said earlier this week that to release preliminary findings and information on Burns Lake could compromise its process. It later shifted gears and said it would reveal in about a week what has been ruled out in the investigation.

Stephen Hunt, Western Canada director for the United Steelworkers, which represents employees at Lakeland and Babine, said the union also believed Burns Lake was a one-off. He said it was reluctant to act on speculation or incomplete results for fear of opening workers up to unexpected risks.

Asked if he regretted that approach, he said, "I guess so. I don't know if I regret it. Obviously, when somebody loses their life, it's more than regret."

He said the union previously asked WorkSafeBC to accelerate its Babine mill investigation, but was told it couldn't be done. The union sent its own investigators to Burns Lake this week to examine the site. The investigators were checking into their hotel when they heard about the explosion at Lakeland.

Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd., which owns Lakeland, said the company increased its housekeeping crew from three to five after Burns Lake, and was looking at installing a vacuum system.

When asked if the company should have acted quicker or done more to prevent this week's tragedy, given the reports about sawdust, Mr. Stewart repeatedly said that the possibility was just a theory. "We had a good safety record. This incident has caught us by surprise."

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