Les Leyne: Questions remain on mill explosion

You can count on hearing more about the fatal Babine Forest Products mill explosion when the legislature resumes sitting next month.

The criminal justice branch explained last week why charges would not and could not be laid in connection with the two-year-old tragedy at the Burns Lake mill.

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The statement was the latest official report on the matter from the provincial government. But New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix served notice Monday that the Opposition doesn’t think the story is over.

He said the investigation was incompetent and bungled, and the conclusion of the case — at this point — is “outrageous.”

The explosion killed two people, injured 20 and destroyed the mill, which was subsequently rebuilt and is expected to open later this winter. It was triggered by a spark that ignited a fireball of accumulated sawdust in the mill. It was blamed partly on the specific properties of sawdust from milling dry, beetle-killed timber. The potential for such a catastrophe was poorly understood at the time.

It’s clear now that the investigation of the case was just as poorly understood.

The criminal justice branch said it was satisfied there was enough evidence to charge the company with a number of offences related to its safety standards.

But the central finding was that it couldn’t use much of the evidence in court because WorkSafe B.C. handled the case as a routine safety compliance inspection, rather than as a potential regulatory or even criminal offence.

In the months spent investigating the aftermath, WorkSafe didn’t get a search warrant for evidence, even after it started suspecting violations.

No charter caution was given when investigators interviewed the president. The criminal justice branch said the investigators didn’t take into account the legal requirements for evidence related to prosecutions.

The “unexplored avenues of inquiry” and the likely inadmissibility of evidence tied the Crown prosecutors’ hands.

The branch said there could have been a case for charges of failing to prevent hazardous accumulation of material, failing to remove combustible dust, and failing to ensure the health and safety of workers.

But there was no substantial likelihood of conviction, it said. That’s because the company could argue “due diligence” — that it had taken reasonable steps to deal with the dust. (The day before the explosion, all production was stopped and all hands were assigned to a cleanup project.)

It was meeting WorkSafe’s own standards, and dust conditions were about the same as at other mills.

It’s a very unsatisfying conclusion. And it raises the question of why WorkSafe and the criminal justice branch apparently hadn’t been communicating about what standards are expected in investigations where charges might be considered. WorkSafe has laid charges in the past, and won convictions.

But it’s now finished what it acknowledges was the biggest investigation in its history, and has not much to show for it.

There are two more developments to come. WorkSafe B.C. will release its full report this week.

The broad outlines are already known, but there could be the basis for an “administrative penalty” in the findings.

And the B.C. Safety Authority will release results of its separate investigation, also this week. It drew some heat last year for holding off on releasing it because the criminal justice branch was reviewing charges. That decision was made after consulting with three cabinet ministers. That prompted the NDP to accuse them of intervening due to election timing, something the authority denies.

Dix resurrected that charge Monday.

It will take a few question periods to thrash through the ramifications of these developments. But they won’t make much difference to Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi, two men who died far too young.

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