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Sawmill-explosion inquest adjourns after new evidence surfaces

Lakeland sawmill explosion resumption of inquest to be set soon


(Canadian OH&S News) — British Columbia Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe has temporarily adjourned an ongoing inquest into the fatal Lakeland sawmill explosion in Prince George in April 2012, citing newly disclosed information about subsequent investigations into the tragedy.

Inquest counsel John M. Orr, Q.C. said that lawyers for the Lakeland mill had commissioned a separate forensic investigation into the blast – and that WorkSafeBC, the province’s workers’ compensation board, had known about this for more than two years.

“I had started asking a number of questions during the inquest about whether or not the company had done their own internal investigation,” Orr said. “Initially, I was told no.” But then Orr and his team discovered that Case Forensics (CF), a Seattle-based forensic-engineering firm, had done a very extensive investigation.

At first, the Lakeland legal team refused to release the information, citing client privilege. But the lawyers later relented, after a 90-minute phone call between Lapointe and CF. “And so we get a USB stick with 30 gigs of information. This was a massive, really, really big investigation,” said Orr, who stressed that CF had never compiled a report. “It’s just raw investigative information.”

Orr added that WorkSafeBC had declined to meet with CF and accept all of the latter’s information in 2012, instead proceeding with issuing its own report. “That raises a lot of questions about the WorkSafeBC report,” he noted. Upon learning this, Orr requested the adjournment so he could “go through the case report, compare it to all the WorkSafeBC materials and see if we’ve got a problem, in that the WorkSafeBC report may not be reliable.”

Lapointe announced that the inquest was adjourned on March 25. This came two days after the western district of the United Steelworkers (USW) pulled out of the inquest because of issues with the way the investigations had been handled.

“We weren’t satisfied that the proper questions were going to be answered,” USW District 3 director Stephen Hunt said, “and it was really turning into a public-relations exercise.” Hunt charged that the inquest had been focusing too much on what the employers and WorkSafeBC had accomplished since the disaster. “Well, not good enough. We want to know why the two mills exploded and what the regulator and others and the employer were doing prior to the fatalities.”

Hunt pointed out relevant facts that he felt the inquest had been ignoring. “There was an anonymous call from a worker who said, ‘I’m afraid that this mill is going to blow up like Babine Lake,’” he said, referring to the similar explosion at the Babine Forest Products mill near Burns Lake in January 2012. In addition, a fully qualified hygiene inspector visited the mill before the blast, but didn’t measure the dust level, Hunt claimed.

“You’ve got the people who are responsible, their only responsibility is the health and safety of workers, and they just didn’t do their job.”

WorkSafeBC’s investigations into both explosions had already come under heavy criticism, as neither had resulted in criminal charges. Last year, a government inquiry into the Babine disaster accused WorkSafeBC of handling evidence inappropriately, treating the disaster as merely an oh&s case rather than as a criminal one.

Hunt and the union had advocated for a public inquiry into both explosions. “We were worried about this from the start, that the inquest would not get to the real issues,” he said. “The whole thing needs way more answers than a court or jury could ever give, and it should be a full-blown inquiry, and perhaps a judge presiding over it with proper rules of evidence, and the right to subpoena and empower people to testify.”

The B.C. Coroners Service stated on March 25 that a date for resumption of the inquest would be set as soon as possible. Despite the delay, Orr considered the adjournment a positive development.

“This is really good. We found a large amount of new information,” he said. “This is what the inquest’s about. The strength of the inquest process is that we get to everything.”