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Wood dust accumulation at Lakeland Mill flagged in February

Mountain pine beetles kill a tree by boring into the bark and girdling it within days. There is on-going discussion about the challenges of processing wood killed by pine beetles because the wood is exceptionally dry.

Anne Sherwood/New York Times/Anne Sherwood/New York Times

WorkSafeBC inspectors flagged the accumulation of wood dust at Prince George's Lakeland Mill, the site of a massive explosion and fire this week, in February, the month after a blast levelled a sawmill elsewhere in northern B.C.

The dust is seen as a possible factor in the catastrophic explosions that destroyed both the Lakeland facility, killing two workers, and the Babine Forest Products plant in Burns Lake in January, also killing two workers.

Fine particles, such as wood dust, can fuel catastrophic explosions under certain circumstances and have been the cause of massive damage at industrial facilities.

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According to a Feb. 9, 2012, report, a WorkSafe inspector discussed with the company the wood dust found throughout the mill, including "accumulations of piles of wood dust" in various parts of the facility. However, the inspector did not issue any corrective orders.

Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd., said he was not aware of the report until Wednesday; since no order was issued, the operations manager would have dealt with the matter. But he did acknowledge that the company had cleaned away debris after the inspection, reviewed its procedures, and increased its clean-up crew to five from three workers, characterizing those actions as "a significant response."

Three years earlier, in a report dated Feb, 3, 2009, WorkSafe specifically warned of the danger of dry wood killed by pine beetles, and noted an absence of monitoring exposure of wood dust in processing saws and chipping heads in the plant. "This is an item that should be re-evaluated due to the changes in productivity that has occurred over recent years and the fact the majority of the wood being processed is dry beetle killed pine," said the report, released by WorkSafeBC as part of a package of documents on the Lakeland operation.

As the industry, unions and the government have been in talks on a response to this week's deadly explosion in Prince George, there has been some discussion about the challenges of processing wood killed by pine beetles because that wood is exceptionally dry.

John Allen, president and DEO of the Council of Forest Industries, told reporters Wednesday that the industry is inevitably relying on older beetle wood.

He said it is "not practical" to reduce the consumption of such wood.

"What we're going to do is take steps to mitigate against any issues from sawmilling beetle wood, including dust," he said following a meeting with the B.C. Labour Minister and labour leaders.

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The reports also include reference to a February fire at the plant's bag house. A worker had to "quickly exit" the area of the fire, but was uninjured.

The authors of the WorkSafeBC report say they were awaiting a report from the company on the fire. No orders were written in the incident.

In a conference call on Tuesday, the company said the fire caused $25,000 in damages.

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