Mill fire scars deepen as owners brace for charges

Possible legal troubles raise questions over plans to rebuild Burns Lake mill
Burns Lake after the mill fire that killed two people and closed the town’s major economic driver

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

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

Should the Crown proceed with charges, it’s not clear what that would mean for Hampton Affiliates’ plans to rebuild its Babine Forest Products mill.

The Oregon-based forestry company announced it planned to rebuild, after the provincial government agreed to dedicate timber to the mill. The company’s board of directors is expected to make a decision in December on whether to proceed with the rebuild.

“We were surprised by this announcement and disappointed that we are not yet able to see the report of WorkSafe’s findings so that we can fully understand what happened that tragic night of the explosion,” said Steve Zika, Hampton’s CEO.

“Because we have not received any additional substantive information for this decision from WorkSafe, we cannot comment further at this time.”

Although WorkSafeBC found violations at the mills, they did not warrant a criminal investigation, said Roberta Ellis, WorkSafeBC’s senior vice-president of human resources and corporate services.

Had WorkSafeBC found criminal negligence, Ellis said it would have referred it to the police for possible criminal charges.

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

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 higher fines of $652,000, but they can also impose prison terms and fine individual employees.

Ellis estimated WorkSafeBC has referred charges to the Crown only eight to 10 times in the past.

The Crown can decide against proceeding 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 before the courts, Ellis said she couldn’t specify what violations WorkSafeBC investigators found at the two mills.

“Generally, violations under the Workers Compensation Act can include [those] 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.”

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

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