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The Globe and Mail

Labour ministry says it was city's responsibility to monitor Elliot Lake mall's structure

Two men stand outside the collapsed Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, Ont., on June 28, 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's Labour Ministry said Friday it wasn't responsible for ensuring Elliot Lake's mall was structurally sound as its inspectors ventured inside the rubble in an attempt to determine the cause behind the collapse that killed two women and injured more than 20 people.

The ministry inspected the Algo Centre Mall six times since 2009, prompted by complaints regarding workplace safety.

"There's an impression that the visits were to look at the structural integrity of this building. That was not the case," ministry spokesman Tom Zach told reporters at a morning briefing. "The tenants would call us. For example one instance there was leaky pipes, there was talk of mould. ... That's why we were there."

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The building's structural integrity, Mr. Zach said, is governed by Ontario's building code, which is enforced by the local municipality.

Elliot Lake has so far refused to divulge any information on when its inspectors last visited the Algo Centre, or what they found. That information's only available subsequent to a freedom of information request, chief building official Bruce Ewald told The Globe. These requests tend to take several weeks, at minimum.

The labour ministry, which is responsible for enforcing the Occupational Health and Safety Act, has the power to take more drastic actions in cases of non-compliance, or when workers are deemed to be immediately at risk. This includes fines, criminal charges or shutting down a workplace entirely. But the ministry's purview is limited to workplace health and safety; its inspections are driven by complaints, rather than routine inspections required to enforce building code regulations.

"If it's a structural situation, which we don't go and look for, we're not the experts," Mr. Zach said. "We saw in those workplaces there were some leaky pipes, there was a sewage pipe that I believe had broken. We came back, we followed up, it had been repaired and they complied with the order. That's the law. In terms of something structurally severe about the building, I would expect under the Ontario building code there would be some building inspectors with that expertise in here looking at that structure."

In its six visits to Algo Centre Mall in response to workplace safety complaints, the labour ministry never fined the mall's owner, ordered the site shut down or pressed charges - "they complied with orders right away," said Greg Dennis, a spokesman for Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey. Local residents interviewed by the Globe and Mail have indicated that the building's maintenance issues, which included long-leaking ceilings and mould, were well-known in the Northern Ontario community.

Mall owner Bob Nazarian's lawyer Antoine-Rene Fabris told reporters Thursday his client spent about $1-million on repairs to the mall, but wouldn't say what that covered or over what time period the money was spent.

An investigation into the mall's collapse is ongoing.

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Dan Hefkey, Ontario's commissioner of community safety, told reporters Friday morning that a Ministry of Labour engineer, along with a firefighter and a police officer, will enter the building to assess the state of the structure.

"At that point, he's focusing on the how and the why," Mr. Hefkey said, referring to the engineer. He added that the engineer will devote special attention to "the 10-metre-by-25-metre space" where the bodies of Lucie Aylwin and Doloris Perizzolo were recovered earlier this week.

Mr. Hefkey said the investigation will also determine whether the building will have to be demolished.

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