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Mill explosion needed public airing, inquest hears

Prince George, B.C. - The deaths of four British Columbia workers in separate mill explosions were so tragic that a WorkSafeBC executive felt that trials were the preferred route to air the facts, an inquest has heard.

Dave Anderson, a now-retired WorkSafeBC CEO, told a coroner's jury that it was his decision to forward the findings to Crown counsel because he felt court hearings would provide the appropriate public forums given the magnitude of the events.

The explosion at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, B.C., occurred in April 2012, three months after a similar blast struck Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake.

Four workers were killed and more than 40 were injured in the two disasters, prompting two of the largest investigations ever carried out by WorkSafeBC.

Anderson told the inquest into the Lakeland explosion that once the findings were in, WorkSafeBC could have treated the incidents strictly as matters of administrative sanctions, but legislation also allowed the possibility of taking the matters to court.

After reviewing investigators' reports and consulting with a WorkSafeBC lawyer, Anderson said the decision was made to forward the case to the Crown.

"I felt that this case was so tragic and so potentially still dangerous to other workers and (there was) such a high level of anxiety in the province amongst the worker community and the employer community, I felt that the public airing of the facts in a court case – in a jury trial – would be preferential,'' he told the inquest.

Glenn Roche, 46 and Alan Little, 43, died from injuries at Lakeland, while Robert Luggi Jr., 45, and Carl Charlie, 42 were killed in the Babine explosion.

WorkSafeBC recommended four charges under provincial safety laws, but no criminal-negligence charges were ever laid. The RCMP determined within days that no criminal offence was committed in connection to the Lakeland Mills explosion.

Crown counsel eventually decided against pursuing charges, in part because no warrants were issued, which rendered some evidence inadmissible in court.

Anderson said WorkSafeBC decided against appealing the decision. He said Crown concluded a jury would likely find the employers could not have reasonably foreseen such catastrophic events and had taken steps showing they were sufficiently careful.

"I looked at those things and said, in my own layman's mind, that kind of demonstrates they knew what could be done, they just didn't do enough and they did it too infrequently,'' Anderson testified.

WorkSafeBC fined Lakeland Mills Ltd. $724,163. Babine Forest Products was fined $1 million, the highest such fine ever issued by WorkSafeBC. Both penalties are being appealed by the sawmills' respective owners.

The inquest jury will begin deliberations Thursday on the cause of death and develop recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

An inquest into the Babine mill explosion and fire will be heard in Burns Lake in July.

May 14, 2015  By The Canadian Press

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