BURNS LAKE, B.C. - Politicians and businessmen are celebrating the decision to rebuild a British Columbia sawmill that had fuelled the economy of a small northern town, but at least one former worker is still weighing the risks of going back on the floor.
John Ruffell, a 55-year-old former saw filer, was happy to learn that Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake will begin production again, although his chances of seeking a job there are only 50-50.
Ruffell would have been at the mill for 37 years as of next week if the blast never occurred, and in the year since he's held on-and-off employment.
"It's really good for the town. I'm glad they're building it for the town," he said in an interview.
"(But) safety is very important. They dropped the ball. ... There are some people who don't want to go to mills again."
Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates confirmed plans Tuesday to rebuild the mill in the town west of Prince George, even as B.C. prosecutors considers laying charges in connection with the deadly explosion and fire last January.
An explosion and fire flattened the mill, killing two workers and injuring several others who had been working the night shift.
The company announced in September it was hopeful it could rebuild, but first needed agreements securing timber supply to ensure the business will be viable.
Just as deals were being firmed up with the provincial government late last week, an agency that enforces workers' safety announced it's asking the B.C. Crown to consider charges for violations under the Workers Compensation Act.
While the RCMP has ruled out criminal negligence, WorkSafeBC has called the practices of Hampton and another B.C. company into question.
Despite that cloud, officials were embracing the decision as a boon to the town's economy that would surmount the challenges.
"We live daily with the regret and sorrow of the terrible January tragedy that killed two of our employees and forever altered the lives of many in Burns Lake," Hampton Affiliates CEO Steve Zika said in a news release. "Looking forward, the Babine sawmill rebuild will allow our employees and the community to focus on a future of renewed and sustainable economic and social prosperity."
Zika personally gave the news to workers in the small town, but made no mention of the probe in a release other than to say it is "actively participating" with WorkSafeBC and an industry taskforce on combustion risks.
He said the findings will be incorporated into the new mill, which will be two-thirds the size of the old mill due to log availability and is expected to start up in early 2014.
MLA John Rustad played an integral role in getting agreements signed to reassure the company it should stay in B.C. He said he does have some concerns about the on-going probe, but that shouldn't overshadow the "tremendous" news.
"There are all kinds of things that could upset the apple cart, there's the world economic conditions ... there's a little bit of uncertainty with WorkSafe and what the Crown may ultimately decide to do," he said.
"Hampton is obviously going to be aware of those things, but all things being equal, they feel confident to go ahead with the decision for a rebuild."
Mayor Luke Strimbold said he's grateful that so many groups — including Hampton, the province of B.C., First Nations and community members — put in the hard work necessary to make a new mill a reality.
He said the last year has been a challenge both economically and psychologically for the community, and though the recovery process is long, the rebuild will help.
"I do think this is part of the healing process for many workers in the community," he said.
Al Gerow, chief of the Burns Lake Indian Band and president and CEO of the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, agreed.
"Collectively, the community and residents of the Lakes District have held their breath until today, and it feels like today we can now breathe," he said.
The development corporation, which is an umbrella organization of six local First Nations, owns just under 11 per cent of Babine Forest Products. The old sawmill employed about 250 people, 81 of whom were local First Nations, he said.
The two men who died in the explosion were both aboriginal.
A WorkSafe investigation found dry wood dust, accumulated from pine beetle-killed wood, fuelled a fiery explosion that was ignited by machine parts.
The new mill will likely hire fewer workers, but has plans to incorporate leading-edge technology. Basic foundation work has already commenced, while the company has plans to order major equipment shortly.
— Written by Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver