BC premier says no inquiry into 2012 sawmill explosions that killed four, injured dozens

Babine Forest Products explosion, Jan 20, 2012, photo from CBC
Babine Forest Products explosion, Jan 20, 2012, photo from CBC

By Roger Annis, Feb 17, 2014–Rank and File.ca has reported on the two sawmill explosions in northern British Columbia in January and April of 2012 that killed four workers and injured dozens. Many of the workers were of First Nations nationalities. There have been two substantive developments recently in the investigation of the first of those two explosions–at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, west of Prince George, on January 20, 2012.

Firstly, as reported last month, on January 10, 2014, the prosecution branch of the BC government announced it will not prosecute the company or any of the its officials. It says flaws in the investigation of the explosion by WorkSafeBC (BC’s workers compensation board) make it unlikely that criminal charges would stick. The decision not to prosecute has shocked victims, their relatives and the members of the communities where the sawmills are located.

Secondly, Premier Christy Clark has followed that up with an announcement late last week that she will ignore calls for a full public inquiry into the whole mess. This followed the publication of a report last week by John Dyble, deputy minister to the premier and head of the public service, that repeats accusations of a bungled WorkSafeBC investigation first made by the government’s prosecution branch. Clark commissioned the report by Dyble, an intimate adviser to her.

The nearly two-year WorkSafeBC investigation of the explosion was issued on Jan. 17 and reveals harrowing conditions of sawdust accumulation inside the Babine sawmill. It turns out the mill was not unique. The daily cleaning practices to eliminate sawdust that have been routine in the sawmill industry for decades and are known to be essential to safety have deteriorated in the past ten years, due in no small part to the lengthening of the two-shift operations that are standard in the mills. The daily work schedule provides fewer and fewer hours to clean dust from the mills overnight. That leaves it to weekend crews to do the heavy lifting.

Two additional factors have made the situation in the mills dangerous–winter conditions that see doors and windows closed to keep out the cold, and the processing of increasingly large volumes of wood killed by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. That wood is drier than typical wood processed in the past, and therefore its dust when milled is more explosive.

The pine beetle infestation has been caused by warming winter temperatures and has leveled most of the province’s pine forests. The sawmill companies are racing to process killed trees before it decomposes.

WorkSafeBC has defended its investigation. Jeff Dolan, WorkSafeBC investigations director, told CBC Radio’s As It Happens on Jan. 13 that past investigation practices have led to 31 criminal prosecutions resulting in 24 convictions since 1996.  “The issues of law that the Crown have raised in this investigation have not been raised in previous investigations,” he said.

The Babine sawmill is majority owned by the Portland, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates. In a statement issued on January 22, 2014, it said it “didn’t know” that accumulations of sawmill dust could be so dangerously explosive.

The investigation of the other sawmill explosion, at Lakeland Mill in Prince George, is ongoing.

Enclosed are three articles and one press release reporting the latest developments.

* * *

Report raises doubts about WorkSafeBC’s ability to protect workers

By Justine Hunter, The Globe and Mail, Feb 17, 2014

Victoria BC–John Dyble’s report [see article below] on the Babine mill explosion [northern BC, in January 2012] provides no solace for the families of the victims, nor does it give comfort to those who work in high-risk occupations in B.C. His report, released last week by Premier Christy Clark, concluded that one government agency should have listened to another government department about the proper conduct of investigations. The government has pledged to follow through with better training and improved communication between agencies next time around…

WorkSafeBC ignored legal advice from province, report on mill explosion finds

By Ian Bailey, The Globe and Mail, Feb. 14 2014

VANCOUVER — B.C.’s worker safety agency ignored years of legal advice from the province’s own lawyers before it bungled its probe of a 2012 mill explosion so badly that no one will ever face charges in the incident that killed two people, a report on the investigation says.

Premier Christy Clark said she is “deeply disappointed” with the errors and neglect revealed in the report written by one of her most senior deputy ministers [John Dyble] on the WorkSafeBC investigation. Because of those errors, the Crown could not lay regulatory charges because most of the evidence gathered would be inadmissible in court…

CEOs work together to create sawmill regulations

By Justine Hunter, The Globe and Mail, Jan. 27 201

VICTORIA —The night that a sawmill in Prince George exploded, two of B.C.’s leading forestry executives – normally fierce competitors – picked up the phone to talk.

Hank Ketcham, chair of West Fraser Timber, called Don Kayne, CEO of Canfor. The two companies are giants in the B.C. forest industry and they run head to head in the province’s Interior. But both men were driven that night by fear of a crisis they saw headed their way…

Wet’suwet’en First Nation calls on Premier Clark to establish independent inquiry into Babine Forest Products mill explosion
Press release, Jan 30, 2014



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