POLITICS

B.C.'s chief coroner says inquest is best way to look into sawmill blast

03/10/2014 02:51 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT
VICTORIA - Days after the victims and families of a deadly sawmill explosion in north-central British Columbia appeared at the legislature to plead for an independent public inquiry, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said an inquest is the best way to find answers about the tragedy.

Two people died and 19 others were injured in the fire and subsequent explosion at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake in January 2012. WorkSafeBC concluded the blast was partially caused by an accumulation of wood dust.

"The (coroner's) inquest is, in my mind, the best venue to examine a tragedy like this," Lapointe told a news conference Monday at the legislature.

"It is public. Anybody who knows anything can be compelled to come and speak," she said. "The normal rules of evidence do not apply, so it's a very broad questioning of the witnesses. There is much more openness. The goal of the inquest is to find out exactly what happened."

But Lapointe said an inquest does not set out to find fault or assign blame though the inquest jury can make recommendations to prevent such a similar incident in the future.

Some family members from Burns Lake said last week that they will go to their graves fighting to ensure people are held accountable for the deaths and injuries caused by the blast.

"For some reason there is the notion that accountability must include punishment, and in terms of a coroner's inquest we do not find fault but there is definitely public accountability," Lapointe said.

She said she expects the two- to three-week inquest to be held in the fall and that the coroner's office is scouting for an appropriate location in Burns Lake, but it may be held in Prince George.

Carl Charlie, 42, and 45-year-old Robert Luggi Jr. were killed.

Reports by WorkSafeBC, which is responsible for enforcing workplace safety laws, and the B.C. Safety Authority concluded, in part, that the blast could have been prevented if the sawmill had taken measures to control sawdust generated by milling beetle-killed wood.

The mill's owner, Babine Forest Products, has said there was no way it could have known about hazards linked to the combustible sawdust, which they'd taken steps to control.

In January, Crown lawyers announced there would be no charges in connection with the blast, partly because an investigation by WorkSafeBC was flawed. The province's criminal justice branch said crucial evidenced gathered during the investigation wouldn't be admissible in court.

In the legislature last week, Premier Christy Clark ruled out a public inquiry. She said the government has already identified problems with the WorkSafe BC investigation and ordered changes.

Blast victim Kenny Michell, who was badly burned in the explosion and now uses a wheelchair, said then that he wants justice for himself, his two dead co-workers, and others who were injured.

Maureen Luggi, whose husband Robert died in the explosion, said she wants accountability, transparency and justice.

Opposition labour critic Harry Bains said the inquest is necessary but that an independent inquiry would dig deeper into determining responsibility for the tragedy.

"It will provide some answers, but not all of the answers," he said. "We need a public inquiry. That's what the families asked for. That will be one area where they could actually see some closure coming.