Regulation needed to improve safety

Lakeland Mills' new Prince George facility could be one of the safest places to work in B.C.

Built after its predecessor exploded in April 2012, killing two workers and injuring 22 others, the mill contains drastic measures to address dangerous accumulations of fine wood dust that fuelled one of the most horrifying industrial accidents in this community's history. Beams have been rotated to 45 degree angles to minimize the areas where dust can collect. Enclosures surround processing centres so waste can be sucked away immediately.

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Plant manager Marc Witte told the Citizen the mill was designed with dust mitigation in mind. It had better be. If Lakeland explodes again, even the B.C. Liberals would be forced to make serious strides in regulating industry in this province.

In the almost 33 months since the destruction of Lakeland sent a column of fire into the Prince George night sky, no charges of any kind have been laid against any of the firm's officers or staff. While Lakeland, a division of Sinclar Group Forest Products, faces $724,163 in fines, the company appealed the penalty at the end of October and could end up with a favourable decision.

That's not to say Lakeland's owners necessarily deserve to face charges and fines. But a WorkSafeBC (WSBC) investigation, released in April, did conclude the incident was preventable, taking Lakeland to task for, among other criticisms, spending millions of dollars upgrading the sawmill's production capabilities to deal with mountain pine-beetle killed wood but doing "little work" on a collection system to address the extra-dry and thus extra-explosive dust that came from milling it. It also criticized the mill's cleanup and maintenance procedures.

The problem is that aforementioned investigation hamstrung the prospects of anyone being held accountable.

In its April statement explaining why it would not pursue charges against Lakeland's owners despite WSBC's recommendations, the B.C. Criminal Justice Branch (CJB) infamously questioned WSBC's investigatory techniques, which may have rendered some of the evidence it gathered inadmissable; the CJB was likewise troubled by WSBC's investigation of an explosion at Burns Lake's Babine Forest Products in January 2012. The CJB also wondered why the regulatory agency did not pursue evidence on how much Lakeland's higher-ups knew about the sawdust conditions at the Prince George mill before it exploded.

But the CJB said it wasn't WSBC's botched investigation that undermined the case but rather the agency's own role in policing the mill.

In February 2012, an anonymous worker phoned WSBC to complain of dust and warn it was "turning [Lakeland] into the next Burns Lake sawmill." Two WSBC officers inspected the mill three days later and the CJB report one of them, who had experience and knowledge of dust dangers, would testify there was not a widespread problem of excessive dust at the mill.

That potential testimony; a March 2012 meeting in which WSBC couldn't guide Lakeland's owners on what to do to combat dust in the wake of the Babine explosion; and the fact the WSBC told the media it began to understand the exact nature of the dust hazard in May 2012 led the CJB to say Lakeland's owners would be able to successfully overcome any charges in court by arguing neither they nor WSBC foresaw the dangers at the Prince George mill.

Again, there is likely nothing nefarious here - it eventually turned out a unique, deadly combination of weather conditions, dry pine-beetle-infested wood and industrial misunderstanding were behind the blasts. But, two years later, neither WSBC nor the provincial government have adequately addressed how the province's safety authority missed the danger at Lakeland almost four months after the explosion at Babine; could not stop an accident that was in its own words preventable; and then neglected to probe Lakeland's owners as to what they knew on dust danger at the Prince George mill. One would expect a little more urgency or at least curiousity on both their parts finding out how the ball dropped on one of WSBC's most important files in recent memory.

Instead, the only thing louder than Premier Christy Clark's cheers for liquefied natural gas have been her refusal to call an independent public inquiry into the Babine and Lakeland explosions.

In an attempt to forestall the need for an inquiry, Clark ordered a probe into the agency by Gord Macatee, the B.C. Ferries commissioner. Following a report in July, Macatee issued 43 recommendations for reforming WSBC and on Tuesday he issued a progress report on his recommendations.

While much has been done to fix some of the investigative shortcomings that dogged the WSBC (shortcomings the CJB downplayed in its decisions), other changes, including modifications to the Workers Compensation Act that would give the agency better enforcement tools, such as making it easier to issue stop-work orders, have not progressed as well. One question that has arisen from the Lakeland debacle is whether during that fateful March visit the inspector could have shut down the mill since, unlike other provinces, B.C. stop-work orders require an immediate danger. Regardless, those tools have yet to be introduced; according to the Globe and Mail's Justine Hunter, Shirley Bond, a Prince George area MLA and the minister responsible to WorkSafeBC, is still working on those legislative changes.

However, Macatee did say that, in the last two months, of the 118 mills WSBC monitored, two received orders to manage their dust properly and one stop-work order was issued. He called it a "dramatic improvement" over six months ago; last March, the Vancouver Sun's Gordon Hoekstra reported 61 of the province's 144 sawmills - 42 per cent - didn't meet the agency's regulations on dust safety.

Slow progress. Meanwhile, 33 months later, Lakeland Mills has managed to rebuild a sawmill. That's good news.

It's just a shame that the regulatory framework that surrounds it still isn't much different from the rickety contraption that supposedly protected its predecessor before it blew up.

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