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Multiple investigators in mill explosion create ‘confusion,’ RCMP says

A closed gate at the Babine Forest Products Sawmill in Burns lake December 5, 2012. The Babine Forest Products Sawmill was destroyed by explosion and fire in January that killed two workers and injured 19 others.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When the Babine Forest Products sawmill exploded in Burns Lake two years ago, killing two workers and injuring another 20, the RCMP sent eight regional investigators to the scene.

For two days, the police officers looked for possible criminal wrongdoing. When they concluded there was none, the RCMP handed jurisdiction over to the coroner's service, though some police officers stayed to help in the search for and recovery of human remains. Days later, yet another set of investigators took over from the agency responsible for workplace safety.

The different roles of those three agencies have created "some confusion," the force's assistant commissioner, Wayne Rideout, acknowledged in a letter to the United Steelworkers union.

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And it's still not clear what role law enforcement should have played. Earlier this month, the criminal justice branch announced that no charges would be laid in the blast, even though WorkSafeBC had recommended four charges after finding the accident was preventable. Crown counsel concluded that WorkSafeBC, among other things, failed to treat the Burns Lake fire scene as a possible crime scene, rendering some of the evidence inadmissible in court.

While the head of the B.C. civil service is looking into the Crown's complaints that WorkSafeBC botched its investigation into the Babine Forests Products mill, the union representing forestry workers in B.C. is calling for a dedicated prosecutor and clear lines of investigative authority.

Steve Hunt, the regional director for the United Steelworkers union, said he is frustrated by the lack of progress. "Clearly a number of errors were made. … Everybody has their turf and they are so protective, they forget who they were supposed to protect."

Mr. Hunt said the solution is to have a system where all the parties are trained to investigate and prosecute serious industrial incidents.

Mr. Hunt wrote to the RCMP in the spring of 2012, after mills in Burns Lake and Prince George exploded.

The correspondence sheds some light on how the investigations were handled. In a letter to Mr. Hunt dated May 14, 2012, Mr. Rideout, the head of the RCMP's investigative services in B.C., distances his officers from the Babine investigation.

He noted that the RCMP were the first to respond when the mill exploded in Burns Lake on Jan. 20, 2012. Once they concluded there was no criminal cause for the explosion, the coroner's service asserted jurisdiction, but asked for help in locating the two missing men. On Jan. 23, the remains of Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi Jr. were located, and on Jan. 26, the coroner released the RCMP and turned jurisdiction over to WorkSafeBC.

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"During the initial investigation, the RCMP collaborated with WorkSafeBC on what specific information both agencies required from the mill employees," Mr. Rideout wrote. The RCMP conducted 68 employee interviews to pinpoint the last known locations of Mr. Luggi and Mr. Charlie. After that, WorkSafeBC investigators conducted follow-up interviews. "This may have contributed to some confusion as [to] the role of the RCMP in the initial investigation, and the public perception that the RCMP is in partnership with WorkSafeBC for the ongoing investigation."

The RCMP, the B.C. Chiefs of Police Association and WorkSafeBC have been working on an agreement to co-operate on investigations of any work-related death or injury in the future, and the memorandum of understanding recommends better training of investigators.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said the pact won't be made public until all the parties have signed off. A similar discussion about a dedicated and trained prosecutor has also been held up.

Mr. Hunt said the delay is unacceptable: "I'm tired of this. Why aren't they working together?"

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About the Author
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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