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Botched sawmill investigation sparks outrage

B.C Premier Christy Clark takes a moment while speaking to media in her Vancouver office during a statement regarding the Babine Forest sawmill explosion, February 13, 2014.

Ben Nelms/for The Globe & Mail

The deaths of not two, but four men will likely have no answers, say union officials outraged at the B.C. government's unwillingness to call an inquiry into the botched investigation of a sawmill explosion.

Premier Christy Clark accepted a report by her deputy minister Thursday that slammed provincial regulators' refusal to accept legal advice, saying it's the reason no charges will ever be laid in the explosion at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake in January, 2012. Two were killed and 20 were injured.

But Ms. Clark also said no wider inquiry will be forthcoming.

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Meanwhile, no decisions have been made about whether charges will be laid in the explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George in April, 2012, weeks after Burns Lake. Two were also killed there and another 22 injured. The WorkSafeBC investigations into both explosions were completed at the same time. The review by Deputy Minister John Dyble did not look at the second explosion.

Stephen Hunt, regional director of the United Steelworkers, said Mr. Dyble's report amounted to a "very weak" review that leaves too many questions unanswered.

"We need an independent investigation to get this out of the hands of the politicians," said Mr. Hunt. "Passive little reports like this don't do very much."

Added Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour: "I didn't have high expectations going into this report. There is a complete lack of willingness to treat criminal negligence at work like they do out in the community."

WorkSafeBC recommended four regulatory charges in the Burns Lake explosion, but the Crown refused to lay them, saying the evidence was gathered in ways that violated Charter rights and would not be admissible in court because investigators failed to obtain search warrants or inform witnesses of their rights.

While she ruled out a further inquiry, Ms. Clark sounded a cautious note about work yet to be released by WorkSafeBC.

"I think we need to be concerned about all of the serious investigations that are under way given what the report tells us," said Ms. Clark.

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Kenneth Thornicroft, a lawyer and professor of employment relations at the University of Victoria, said it's reasonable to expect the investigative techniques in Burns Lake spilled over to the Prince George probe.

With a decision on charges in Prince George still outstanding, "it's hard to imagine that this [the Dyble review] wouldn't have an impact on that report."

He praised Mr. Dyble's findings as "balanced" and warned against an inquiry.

"I think they waste a lot of time and a lot of money and at the end of the day, the conclusions that were drawn don't tell us much we already didn't know," he said. While both mills in northern British Columbia are being rebuilt – the Burns Lake mill has begun to recall workers, according to the union – the procedures and standards at the mills will be different. Both mills had been operating with wood killed by pine beetles in early 2012. Unlike green wood, the dead wood created significantly more sawdust – seen as a main culprit in the explosions.

Lucy Campbell's brother, Carl Charlie, was one of the two men killed in the Burns Lake mill explosion.

On Thursday, she said she was exasperated at the lack of accountability in the disaster that killed her brother. Looking ahead to the eventual Crown decision in the Prince George blast, she said she could only hope for better for them.

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"Right now, I just offer prayers of hope and comfort for them. I hope justice will be served in some way," she said.

Follow me on Twitter: @justinCgio

A visual summary of the report from B.C.'s workplace safety agency, judged by the Criminal Justice Branch (and confirmed by the Premier's deputy) to have fallen short of the standard required for criminal charges to be laid in the explosion in Burns Lake that resulted in the deaths of two workers (full story here).

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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