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Mill blast inquest makes 33 recommendations

Prince George, B.C. - A coroner's inquest into a deadly mill explosion in northern British Columbia has suggested that the RCMP develop a policy for investigating criminal negligence in the workplace as one of 33 recommendations aimed at preventing similar disasters.

A five-person jury made the recommendations after eight hours of deliberations on Thursday but ultimately concluded that the fatal 2012 blast at Lakeland Mills in Prince George, B.C., was accidental.

Accidental means the deaths were the result of unintended or unexpected events.

Workers Alan Little and Glenn Roche died from severe burns suffered during the Apr. 23 explosion, while more than 20 others were injured, many seriously.

The outcome brought little satisfaction to Roche's widow, Ronda Roche, who continued to call for a full public inquiry into the disaster at Lakeland Mills and into a similar explosion that levelled Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake on Jan. 20, 2012.

That blast also killed two people and injured more than 20 others.

"It is unfortunate that these proceedings did not assign fault or accountability,'' said Roche. "It has been an emotional journey for myself, my family and the injured workers.''

She said the inquest confirmed many of her suspicions, from a decline in the level of the mill's cleanliness to running new equipment without installing accompanying waste disposal systems to management ignoring employees' concerns.

Most importantly, said Roche, management "found it reasonable to run a third shift without properly assessing the changes in the work environment, which ultimately led to excessive amounts of fuel within the facility.''

The recommendations are directed at a variety of agencies, including WorkSafeBC, the RCMP, the Steelworkers Union, the mill owners and government.

They included the recommendation that the BC Ambulance Service conduct a review to ensure timely response, and for government to ensure that any mill construction or upgrade is made to the highest possible standard.

Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group, which owns Lakeland Mills, sat through virtually all of the inquest.

When asked about mill retrofits being made to the highest-quality measure, Stewart said he hopes the new mill shows Sinclar Group's commitment to a safer industry.

Stewart said a moment of silence is held every April 23 on both the morning and afternoon shifts in remembrance of what occurred, "and that will continue as long as Lakeland is around.''

The jury also recommended that penalties be introduced in the Fire Services Act for failing to comply with the fire code, and that WorkSafeBC put more emphasis on workers' rights and that workers have the right to refuse unsafe work.

In all, the jury heard from 54 witnesses over 21 days of testimony, starting in early March.

The jury began deliberations on Thursday after listening to final comments from B.C.'s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe.

A coroner's inquest is tasked with determining cause of death but does not have the authority to assign blame.

May 15, 2015 
By The Canadian Press

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