05/11/2012 11:40 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Mushroom farm allegedly mismanaged before fatal accident

A mushroom farm where three workers died after a toxic gas leak was mismanaged into a state of disrepair, according to the facility's former composting manager.

D'Arcy Ashe told a coroner's inquest underway in Burnaby on Thursday that he quit working at the farm in December 2006 and his testimony Thursday contradicted much of what the owner told the inquest earlier.

Ashe said by early 2006, only three months after the composting site was in operation, the owner began arguing with all of his recommendations and eventually laid off the two workers that Ashe had hired.

"He told me, `We're taking over, your guys are gone," Ashe told the inquiry.

Owner Ha Quan Truong has told the inquest he hired Ashe to oversee all of the composting facility's safety and regulation requirements. Any deficiencies in those areas were Ashe's fault, he said.

"I had the assumption that when I hired a manager...he would take care of everything," Truong said.

But Ashe said the workers on the farm were "geniuses at taking shortcuts," and that many of the problems were a result of his advice being ignored.

Ashe said pipes connected to an open brown-water tank were repeatedly clogged with straw, despite Ashe's warnings that straw should not be stored next to the tank.

The pumping shed, where the fatal gas release happened when workers tried to unclog a pipe valve, was built in the summer of 2007, six months after Ashe had left his management role.

Ashe also said Truong could understand English fairly well, and that he and Thinh Huu Doan, who took over Ashe's duties after 2006, knew how to run the facility safely.

Owner's apology rejected

Doan attempted to apologize for his role in the disaster earlier Thursday.

"I don't know who's right and who's wrong, but I know I have some responsibility in this accident," said Doan through a translator. "And I wish to say I apologize to the victims' families."

"Why don't you tell the truth!" yelled Phuong Le, the wife of injured worker Michael Phan, cutting off Doan's apology.

Phan, who has attended portions of the inquest, was left severely brain damaged and is confined to a wheelchair.

Doan was also injured that day and three other workers — Ut Tran, Jimmy Chan and Ham Pham — were killed.

Doan testified that on Sept. 5, 2008, he and the others spent five hours trying to unclog the pipe when hydrogen sulfide gas spewed out and overwhelmed the workers. The pipe had been blocked for several days with straw and manure.

Shortly before 5 p.m., Doan said he was working alongside Tran hen Tran told him he smelled something "unpleasant."

Doan told him they should leave, but Tran took two steps and collapsed.

"I thought he was trapped. I tried to help him up," said Doan. "(Then) I saw his eyes closed, and I was scared."

Doan told the coroners' jury he then left the shed to get help.

Doan lost consciousness outside the shed, and only came to when the paramedics arrived and gave him oxygen.

Earlier in his testimony, Doan said he had no knowledge of dangerous gases that can be produced in the composting process, which include ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.

Although he was the supervisor of the composting facility, he also said he had no knowledge of any safety regulations or procedures.

Doan was a 25-per-cent shareholder in the now-bankrupt A1 Mushroom Substratum that owned the composting facility, but said he never knew details about the Township of Langley's attempt to shut down the operation.

The inquest has already heard the facility never had a final occupancy permit and that there had been an agreement before the deadly accident to shut down the composting operation Sept. 6, 2008, one day after the deaths.

Last November, a judge imposed fines of $350,000 on two companies, A1 Mushrooms and HV Truong, and their three owners, who pleaded guilty in connection to the gas leak last year.

Retired inspector testifies

The inquest also heard from a retired WorkSafeBC inspector Thursday, who testified that his supervisors informed him years earlier that farming was not considered a high-risk activity.

James Miller said he thought the 2005 opinion was extremely foolish and that his job was then changed from farm specialist in Langley and Surrey, B.C., to general inspector.

The last time Miller inspected the Langley mushroom farm was in May 2007 in response to neighbours' complaints about odours.

A complaint seven months before the accident was left unattended because he retired, he testified.

But WorkSafe's lawyer Scott Nielsen challenged Miller's testimony, pointing to statistics that show farm inspections increased 400 per cent between 2006 and 2007.

Miller couldn't explain the conflicting information.