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Board does not want charges ruled out in sawmill decision

Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012. British Columbia's Criminal Justice Branch has announced that no criminal or regulatory charges will be laid in connection with the Burns Lake sawmill explosion that killed two people in January 2012.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As the workers' compensation board prepares a report for the B.C. Crown into a fatal 2012 sawmill explosion, the agency's investigations director says his team is trying to ensure that prosecutors won't rule out charges, as they did in a similar explosion earlier that year.

The Criminal Justice Branch last week chose not to proceed with charges in a January, 2012, explosion and fire at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake that killed two and wounded 20. It cited some investigative actions by WorkSafeBC for the decision. The decision comes as WorkSafeBC is completing a report to the Crown on a sawmill explosion and fire in Prince George three months later at the Lakeland Mills plant that killed two workers and injured 22.

Investigations director Jeff Dolan said Sunday that his team has been mindful of Crown concerns about the Burns Lake probe as they work through a final draft of the report on the Lakeland case, which they plan to submit in February.

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The Babine probe was the largest in WorkSafeBC history, with investigators on site at the village about 220 kilometres west of Prince George for 13 weeks.

Lakeland was a probe of similar scale, but easier to conduct because the weather was less severe and Prince George more accessible.

"We will be considering the Crown's legal opinion on Babine before we finalize our Lakeland submission," Mr. Dolan said in an interview. "The Crown will be applying, we expect, a lot of the same laws and legal opinions that they communicated in their Babine clear statement."

In an extensive statement Friday, B.C. prosecutors said they were unable to lay workers' compensation act charges because WorkSafeBC did not treat the Burns Lake fire scene as a possible crime scene or treat the investigation as a potential regulatory probe.

Instead, investigators treated it as a safety-compliance investigation and did not obtain a search warrant authorizing search and seizure at the Babine site.

"What I can say about Lakeland is that there were different investigative methodologies and a progression of our investigative model was applied in Lakeland. There would be subtle differences between Lakeland and Babine," said Mr. Dolan.

However, he said he could not forecast how the Crown will react to the report.

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Mr. Dolan also said he could not comment on exactly what investigative adjustments WorkSafeBC was making. He said details of the Lakeland investigation will not be released until the Crown makes a decision in the case.

While there's no current prospect of Burns Lake charges, Mr. Dolan said WorkSafeBC was exploring the pursuit of administrative penalties that could lead to fines.

Expert opinion gathered by WorkSafeBC suggested airborne combustible sawdust in the basement of the Burns Lake sawmill was somehow ignited, possibly by an open flame or electric arc, creating an initial dust explosion that spread.

Luke Strimbold, mayor of Burns Lake, said emotions are running high in his community, with some disappointment over the absence of charges, but many people want to see the full WorkSafeBC investigative report into the case before reaching any conclusions.

Mr. Dolan said that the 88-page summary will be released some time this week.

Mr. Dolan noted, in defence of WorkSafeBC, that the Crown approved charges 31 times since 1996 in various cases – 24 resulting in convictions.

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The Crown concerns raised in Babine, he said, were never raised in those previous cases.

He said WorkSafeBC did not foresee prosecutors' concerns about Burns Lake, but that he "respected" the Crown's opinion and accepted their expertise.

Frank Everitt, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-424 in Prince George representing workers at Lakeland Mills, said he would await the Crown's final decision on charges before commenting on the situation in detail.

He said, however, he was interested in the WorkSafeBC report on Burns Lake because it might offer ideas on making sawmills safer.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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