Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen is investigating whether a rarely-used amendment to the Criminal Code can be used to bring charges against the owners of Babine Forest Products and Lakeland Mills in a pair of mill explosions that killed four workers and injured 42 others.
Cullen meet with survivors and family members of workers caught in the mill explosions on Sunday in Burns Lake. Cullen said he is working with the NDP's legal council to examine if Bill C-45, known as the Westray Bill, can be used to bring charges against the mill owners.
"It was a powerful meeting with survivors of both [mill explosions]," Cullen said. "I can't believe two explosions, two fatal mill explosions, and no charges have been laid. I'm dumbfounded that this is the system we've created."
On Jan. 20, 2012 an explosion destroyed much of Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake. Later that year, on April 23, a similar explosion and fire destroyed Lakeland Mills in Prince George. WorkSafeBC investigations into the incidents concluded ineffective dust control methods at the mills contributed to sawdust explosions in both cases.
However, after reviewing the evidence gathered by WorkSafeBC, the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch did not proceed with regulatory or criminal charges against either company.
In it's reports on the incidents, the Criminal Justice Branch said that WorkSafeBC's investigation "would render significant evidence that it gathered inadmissible in court," in the case of Babine Forest Products and "some evidence gathered from the site" inadmissible in the Lakeland Mills case.
The Crown ruled that it was unlikely to achieve a conviction in either case.
The Westray Bill, passed into law in March 2004, added a clause to the Criminal Code saying, "Every one who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task is under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent bodily harm to that person, or any other person, arising from that work or task."
Prior to the bill being passed, there was nothing specific in the Criminal Code addressing the legal responsibility of employers not to put their employees at risk, Cullen said.
In his meeting with the workers and their families, Cullen said he was asked to look into the possibility of charges under the Westray Bill.
"Their entire intention is that this doesn't happen again," he said. "I was very careful not to raise their expectations."
Companies must be held accountable, he said, so that business operators take their responsibilities seriously. But the Westray Bill has only been used eight times since it was enacted -including in the sinking of B.C. Ferries vessel the Queen of the North in 2006.
"We will help in whatever way we can," said Cullen. "Having to suffer not once, when the explosions first happened, but again, when the system utterly failed them in their pursuit of justice is unacceptable."
A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC was not available for comment as of press time.
In it's April 14 report on the Lakeland Mills case, the Criminal Justice Branch specifically mentioned the Westray Bill as a consideration in its decision.
"The 'Westray Bill' did not create new substantive offences; nor did it change the test for criminal negligence. The bill imposed a legal duty on those who direct workplaces, and an individual or corporate entity that fails in the duty may be found criminally negligent," the report said.
"However, not all acts are criminal, even when they result in tragic, even fatal consequences. Mere carelessness, or breach of legal duty, will not necessarily support a criminal proceeding. In order to obtain a conviction for criminal negligence under the Criminal Code, the Crown must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the conduct of a particular accused person or corporate entity showed a wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons, and that the conduct was a marked and substantial departure from the standard of care of a reasonable person in such circumstances. The test to establish criminal negligence is an onerous one."