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Smoke rises as police tape surrounds the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012. Family members reacted with dismay Monday to an announcement last week that Crown counsel would not proceed with charges after what it described as a flawed investigation by WorkSafeBC into the sawmill explosion two years ago.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The independent agency responsible for investigating the deaths of two workers in a 2012 sawmill explosion is defending its approach, saying it used the same methods it has employed in past probes.

But this time, the Crown ruled out regulatory charges against the company in the Burns Lake incident, citing flaws in the approach of WorkSafeBC.

In an interview with CBC Radio, the WorkSafeBC investigations director defended his organization's approach to one of its largest-ever investigations – a 13-week effort gathering evidence on the site of the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake after the Jan. 20, 2012, explosion and fire that left two workers dead and about 20 injured.

"It was conducted with the methodologies that have shown successful resolutions in the form of charges being laid 31 times – 24 convictions since 1996," Jeff Dolan told As It Happens. "The issues of law that the Crown have raised in this investigation have not been raised in previous investigations." Mr. Dolan said evidence was gathered as it has been collected "and accepted" for at least the past decade.

But the Crown says it won't proceed with regulatory charges proposed by WorkSafeBC – which could have resulted in fines – because of such shortcomings as failing to obtain search warrants and inform witnesses of Charter rights before agency investigators proceeded to take statements.

The development has outraged many people in Burns Lake – a community of about 2,000 located 220 kilometres west of Prince George – where the mill, now being rebuilt, has been a key employer since it opened in the 1970s.

Robert Luggi, 45, and 42-year-old Carl Charlie were killed in the disaster. Some of the injured are still struggling to recover from wounds they suffered.

Neil MacKenzie, a spokesperson for B.C's criminal justice branch, which ruled out charges, said WorkSafeBC never sought Crown advice on preparing a file. "To the best of my knowledge, the branch was not consulted by WorkSafeBC during the course of this investigation," Mr. MacKenzie said in an interview on Tuesday.

He noted that the Crown had first heard in a November, 2012, media release that WorkSafeBC would be submitting a report. In September, 2013, the criminal justice branch received the WorkSafeBC submission, he said. He said the Crown doesn't generally direct or supervise the conduct of investigations by WorkSafeBC or other investigative agencies, but it wouldn't be averse to taking a call.

"Where an investigative agency seeks our advice during the course of an investigation, the branch is happy to provide it, but it's not something that necessarily takes place," he said. "In the majority of cases, I don't think it does take place."

On Thursday, WorkSafeBC will be releasing an 88-page summary of its investigation in Burns Lake to the families of the dead as well as the injured. Next month, the agency is submitting a report to the Crown on a probe into a fire and explosion at the Lakeland mill in Prince George that occurred three months after the Burns Lake incident. Two men – 43-year-old Alan Little and Glenn Roche, 46 – were killed in that second incident. Twenty-two workers were injured.

Ryan Berger, a Vancouver lawyer, worked on the coroner's inquest following the 2008 explosion at a mushroom farm that killed three workers and left three more with permanent brain damage. Mr. Berger said WorkSafeBC may have been lucky that, in that instance, the accused pleaded guilty.

"Had the matter been contested at a criminal trial," he said, "they may have contested the use of some of the evidence in a criminal trial because it wasn't collected in a criminal investigative process."

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