Owners of exploded Burns Lake and Prince George mills could face prosecution

Owners and employees of sawmills that killed workers in explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George could be facing heavy fines or even jail terms ...

Todd Wikjord/CBC

Owners and employees of sawmills that killed workers in explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George could be facing heavy fines or even jail terms following a WorksSafeBC investigation that has concluded with evidence being forwarded to Crown prosecutors.

A WorkSafeBC investigation into explosions and fires that killed workers at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake in January and the Lakeland mill in Prince George found violations of the Workers Compensation Act.

No criminal negligence was found, Roberta Ellis, WorkSafeBC's senior vice-president of human resources and corporate services, said in a teleconference Thursday morning. Had WorkSafeBC found criminal negligence, it would have referred the evidence to the police, Ellis said.

The recommendations to Crown are not under the Criminal Code of Canada, but the Workers Compensation Act.

WorkSafeBC can impose administrative penalties under the Workers Compensation Act, and fines up to $594,000 for a first offence can be imposed on companies.

The courts can impose slightly higher fines of $652,000, but they can also impose prison terms and can also fine individual employees. Ellis estimated her organization has referred charges to the Crown fewer than 10 times in the past.

The Crown can decide that it may not proceed with prosecution under the act, Ellis said.

"If they're not going to proceed, they'll return the matter to us and then we'll make a determination under the act."

Because the matter is now before the courts, Ellis said she could specify what violations WorkSafeBC investigators found at the two mills.

"Generally, violations under the Workers Compensation Act can include violations in regard to the employers' obligations to maintain a safe and healthy workplace," Ellis said. "It can include violations in regard to supervision, to training, to regular inspections."

On January 20, an explosion and fire at Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake levelled the mill, killing two workers and injuring 20 others.

Three months later, on April 23, an explosion at the Lakeland Mill in Prince George killed two and hospitalized 22 others.

In February, WorkSafeBC inspectors had raised concerns at the Lakeland mill over dust accumulation, but no remediation order was issued.

The Babine Forest Products mill was owned by Hampton Affiliates, an Oregon-based company that has received guarantees from the provincial government on a timber supply as part of a plan to rebuild the mill.

A final decision on whether Hampton will rebuild the mill is expected in December.

It's not certain whether the Prince George mill, which was owned by Sinclair Group Forest Products Ltd., will be rebuilt.

nbennett@biv.com

@nbennett_biv

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