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Mill officials say they were not warned of danger before deadly explosion

Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The agency responsible for workplace safety stepped up sawmill inspections and issued warnings about potentially dangerous levels of sawdust following a devastating explosion at the Burns Lake mill in January, but the Prince George mill that suffered a similar deadly blast last month says it was not included in the heightened scrutiny.

Margaret MacDiarmid, B.C. Labour Minister, said WorkSafe BC conducted 70 mill inspections and sent specific alerts to all sawmills across the Kootenays and the Okanagan about wood dust, after the Babine Forest Products Mill explosion that killed two and injured 19 workers in northern B.C.

The cause of both blasts is unknown, and WorkSafe BC is expected to release on Wednesday some details about its investigation into the Burns Lake tragedy – what factors it has ruled out as the cause of the explosion.

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But in the months after that first incident, Ms. MacDiarmid said it was clear that the worker safety agency was not complacent. The agency issued 90 orders in the wake of that safety sweep related to a number of violations.

WorkSafe BC officials could not say on Wednesday which mills were inspected.

Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd., the company that owns Lakeland Mills, said the mill did not receive any inspection orders from WorkSafe BC during the time between the Burns Lake and Prince George explosions. And the mill did not receive any alerts specific to workplace sawdust issues.

Last week, days after the second blast killed two more workers, Ms. MacDiarmid said sawdust was the common factor and approved an inspection order that covers every sawmill in B.C. She said the Burns Lake fire had appeared to be unique, and so had not resulted in wider action. "Clearly, we were wrong, and another terrible explosion has happened," she said last week.

This week, after a briefing from the agency, the labour minister said any speculation about the cause is unhelpful.

"It doesn't help to second-guess," she said in an interview. "The big questions are, what caused these two different explosions and I can't hypothesis now. If it is clear something should have been done differently, we'll take action – whether regulations or legislation or something else."

The wood processed by sawmills in the B.C. interior and in the north has fundamentally changed in recent years as the forest industry races to process tinder-dry logs killed by the mountain pine beetle. Faster sawing technology has also been introduced, creating finer dust that may be more volatile.

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WorkSafe BC was just starting to consider that new reality last winter, and had sent inspectors to the Burns Lake mill in November as part of a broad study to determine if the drier wood and new sawing technology had rendered workplace safety regulations ineffective.

Ms. MacDiarmid could not explain why the sawdust alerts were sent to mills in regions that are not processing large amounts of pine beetle-killed wood.

Under the present regulations, B.C. companies are required to remove accumulations of combustible dust in a building or structure, or on machinery or equipment, before it can cause a fire or explosion.

But the regulations are not specific, and Ms. MacDiarmid said it is still too early to decide if that should change.

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B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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Based in Vancouver, Sunny has been with The Globe and Mail since November, 2010. More

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