Coroner Lisa Lapointe adjourned Wednesday the inquest into the Lakeland Mills sawmill explosion to a later date to give counsel time to go over new evidence in the form of an investigation into the fatal blast commissioned on behalf of the operation's owners.
In the process, Lapointe took WorkSafeBC to task for failing to disclose that it knew of the investigation prior to the inquest, which has now gone on for two-and-a-half weeks, after coroner's counsel John Orr pinned the blame on the agency for the oversight.
"You don't get to filter, that is not your role," Lapointe said. "And in fact, I would say as participants you have a legal responsibility that anything you have in your possession or information that you know about needs to be brought forward and then I can decide if it's relevant."
Orr asked for the adjournment two days after Lakeland counsel Gavin Marshall provided the inquest with memory sticks holding material from an investigation carried out by a forensic engineer, Seattle-based CASE Forensics. The memory sticks contained a "large volume" of information but no final report on what the firm thought had happened, Marshall told the inquest.
Orr said Wednesday that since then, Marshall also provided him with an e-mail chain showing that even though it was privileged, he had offered to share the material with WorkSafeBC before the agency's final report on the Lakeland explosion had been completed.
WorkSafeBC's investigations director declined the offer and Orr that raises questions about the the quality of agency's own investigation and conclusions regarding the April 23, 2012 incident, which left two men dead and 22 other injured, many seriously.
"What concerns me, is WorkSafe did not share that information with the Coroners Service," Orr said, and noted WorkSafe was aware of the CASE Forensics investigation since at least Nov. 17, 2012.
Orr said CASE Forensics lead investigator, Paul Way, is willing to testify either in person or by teleconference and also suggested WorkSafeBC's chief executive officer at the time, David Anderson, will be called to testify and explain why the decision was made to proceed without the material.
"It is unfortunate that this comes out at this stage in the proceedings and was not disclosed (before the inquest)," Orr said. "There were pre-hearing meetings before the inquest started with all counsel and this was not disclosed before then."
Orr said it would be wrong to proceed in the absence of the material given that the purpose of an inquest is to provide the public and the inquest jury with all of the information available about the circumstances surrounding an incident.
In endorsing Orr's call to adjourn, Lapointe went on to say it's an offence under the Coroners Act to neglect to supply information related to an incident. "I am significantly disappointed that information was known to people...and they chose not to share it," Lapointe said.
Lapointe made her decision without asking other counsel sitting in on the inquest for submissions. WorkSafeBC, B.C. Safety Authority and Lakeland all have lawyers at the inquest.
That a separate investigation had been conducted on Lakeland's behalf had been alluded to throughout the inquest and Orr acknowledged companies routinely get their own investigations done for insurance and other purposes.
"We did ask about that," Orr said during a scrum with local media. "What we were told was WorkSafe told them they didn't need to. And I, if you remember, I kept asking if the company did an investigation and the answer I kept hearing was no, they didn't.
"That was technically correct, the company didn't, the law firm retained CASE Forensics. The investigation was done but I asked the wrong question, I suppose."
Orr said he hopes the adjournment will not affect scheduling of the inquest into explosion at Babine Forest Products which is set to begin July 13 in Burns Lake.
"It may actually make the flow of Babine easier, because we'll have dealt with so many of the issues here," Orr said.
Like Lakeland, WorkSafeBC concluded the explosion at Babine was fueled by the fine, dry sawdust from the beetle-killed pine the mill was processing. The Jan. 20, 2015 incident also killed two men and left about 20 more injured.
The United Steelworkers, which withdrew its counsel from the inquest on Monday morning, said the adjournment provides further support for a public inquiry into the circumstances that led to the explosions at both Babine and Lakeland.
While Lapointe has committed to a thorough review, "it’s become clear the limitations of an inquest will not allow this to happen," the union said in a statement.
Greg Stewart, chief executive officer of Sinclar Group, which owns Lakeland, he was disappointed in the adjournment. "We had hoped this would be completed by the end of the week, and we had some feeling there was possibly for a solution but unfortunately that wasn't an option today," Stewart said.
Sinclar Group representatives have maintained the CASE Forensics investigation would not have materially affected WorkSafeBC's conclusions about what caused the blast.
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