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Mill fire probe referred to prosecutors

Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake Jan. 20, 2012, after dry wood dust exploded and caused a fire that killed two employees and injured 20 others. A similar fatal explosion and fire struck a Prince George mill in April. - Laura Blackwell/Lakes District News
Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake Jan. 20, 2012, after dry wood dust exploded and caused a fire that killed two employees and injured 20 others. A similar fatal explosion and fire struck a Prince George mill in April.
— image credit: Laura Blackwell/Lakes District News

WorkSafeBC officials have completed their investigation into two fatal dust explosions and fires in northern B.C. sawmills earlier this year, and referred the cases to Crown prosecutors for possible charges.

WorksafeBC vice-president Roberta Ellis said Crown lawyers will consider whether to proceed with charges under the Workers Compensation Act, which could be laid against individuals as well as the companies involved.

Criminal charges were ruled out earlier in the investigation. If  Workers Compensation Act charges proceed, the companies could face fines up to more than $500,000 and individuals could be sentenced to up to six months in jail.

If prosecutors decide not to take charges to court, the case would be referred back to WorkSafeBC for possible administrative penalties related to cleaning, ventilation and other conditions at the mills.

Two mill workers died and 20 others were injured when an explosion and fire tore through the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake on Jan. 20, 2012. On April 23, a similar explosion killed two workers and injured 22 more at Lakeland Mills in Prince George.

Investigators ruled out natural gas, oil and other fuel sources, leaving fine, dry dust produced from milling wood. WorksafeBC concluded that the likely ignition source was hot electric motor and gear reducer equipment running wood waste conveyors in low, confined areas of the mills.

The Babine mill is co-owned by Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates and the Burns Lake Native Development Corp. Hampton CEO Steve Zika said he is disappointed that the company has not yet seen the final WorkSafeBC report.

Greg Stewart, president of Lakeland Mills owner Sinclair Group Forest Products, also expressed concern that the referral to Crown counsel means the report is being withheld from the mill owners pending a decision on charges.

"It is critical for Lakeland and the industry to do everything we can to ensure this never happens at another mill," Stewart said.

Lab tests conducted for WorkSafeBC showed that fine dust from any wood source can become explosive once its moisture content is below five per cent. Both mills were processing dry beetle-killed timber as well as green timber.

The investigation included reviews of previous mill inspections that reported on dust accumulation, heating, ventilation and the condition of equipment.

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