While preparing investigations into two deadly sawmill blasts that it eventually botched, WorkSafeBC turned down access to a months-long probe by one of the mills' owners and then did not tell an ongoing inquest about the existence of this extensive hidden evidence, the lead lawyer for the provincial coroners service says.
The coroner's inquest in Prince George, B.C., called to provide answers into two 2012 disasters that killed four people, was adjourned indefinitely Wednesday after inquest counsel John Orr said it would take several weeks to review the new evidence, which includes "dozens and dozens of interviews" with workers and management. Mr. Orr said the inquest must then arrange for the private investigator to testify, and likely the CEO of WorkSafe, as well as find court space.
Mr. Orr said he was disappointed to hear in court Wednesday that WorkSafe's lead investigator was offered access to the investigation by a lawyer for Lakeland Mills' owners in November, 2012, well before the workplace safety authority had completed its report into the blast that killed two at the Prince George mill. He said the "really extensive" investigation, done by Seattle firm CASE Forensics, only came to light after "persistent questioning" of mill management last week.
"When we kept asking, 'Was there an investigation?' [WorkSafe] stayed silent," Mr. Orr said. "They could have easily stood up early on [in the inquest], or even months before, and said, 'Well, you know there was an investigation done by CASE Forensics?'"
"It's a bit disappointing to me that three and a half weeks in we have to adjourn."
A WorkSafeBC spokesperson was unable to provide comment before deadline Wednesday.
Mr. Orr said WorkSafe had no legal reason to refuse the information from Lakeland's owners, which knew it could face litigation over the April explosion.
"Surely more information is better than less," Mr. Orr said. "We need to call some witnesses to explain, and they may have a really good explanation. But we have to ask the questions."
WorkSafeBC botched that investigation and another one into a fire at a mill near Burns Lake that killed two. Although the agency recommended charges against the mills' owners, the Criminal Justice Branch declined to lay them after concluding the safety authority's evidence was likely inadmissible in court.
Cam McAlpine, a spokesperson for Lakeland's parent company, Sinclar Group Forest Products, said he didn't know why WorkSafe declined to study the work by CASE Forensics in 2012, but the private investigation didn't produce any significant new evidence.
Mr. McAlpine said the company had believed that this new evidence wouldn't have changed the outcome of the inquest and is "quite disappointed" at Tuesday's indefinite adjournment.
"The coroner has made it clear that she believes the important part of the evidence presented is the witness testimony and she could have done this by working out, in some form, getting testimony from the investigator with CASE," Mr. McAlpine said.
Counsel for all sides will need several weeks to study the new evidence, but Mr. Orr said he hoped to restart the inquest by the end of April.
Meanwhile, Stephen Hunt, United Steelworkers director for Western Canada, said his union, which pulled out of the inquest Monday, would likely soon ask the RCMP to reopen its case that relied solely on WorkSafe's evidence.
"When you [WorkSafe] reject something as significant as a forensic investigation into fatalities and then make your own findings that are relied on by the RCMP to determine criminality?
"There's something wrong here," he said.