BRITISH COLUMBIA
03/31/2014 01:45 EDT | Updated 05/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Government, industry, labour work together to prevent dust buildup in sawmills

VICTORIA - On a day when the B.C. government announced a safety plan to prevent another sawmill from blowing up, the Opposition New Democrats launched a concerted effort for a public inquiry into the first of two explosions that killed two workers and injured 19 others.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix said it appears the Liberal government is doing everything it can to avoid a probe with powers to point fingers and make findings of misconduct.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond said while the government feels extreme remorse and sympathy for the victims and their families, ensuring safe working conditions at the mills is the top priority.

In a telephone interview from Ottawa, Bond said the government, forest industry, unions and WorkSafeBC have agreed on a 90-day implementation plan aimed at preventing explosions.

The plan includes a multi-point strategy to limit the potential for combustible dust and make sure mills comply with safety regulations. Part of the program includes a dust mitigation and control audit, to ensure best practices, provincewide.

"We now have a series of steps we intend to take with a very aggressive 90-day strategy," said Bond. "The ultimate goal here is to make sure we have standards in place that industry is working to."

Bond said part of the plan includes WorkSafeBC doubling its inspection team to 20 people.

"We're going to work as tirelessly as we can to ensure that we have the safe work places that British Columbians and families should expect," she said.

In January 2012, Burns Lake residents Carl Charlie, 42, and 45-year-old Robert Luggi Jr. died when a fireball ripped through the mill where they worked. A few months later, in April 2012, an explosion at the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George killed Alan Little, 43 and Glen Roche, 46.

A coroner's inquest has been called into the Burns Lake explosion at the Babine Forest Products sawmill.

Dix said an inquest is a valuable process, but an independent inquiry is where the government must go to search for answers about the tragedy.

No charges were laid after the Criminal Justice Branch said mistakes committed by WorkSafeBC investigators diminished the likelihood of a conviction.

"They seem determined not to seek the truth," Dix said at a news conference at the legislature. "In this case, what is owed is the truth.

Dix said public inquiries have the power to make findings of misconduct against individuals. He said public inquiries are useful and necessary.

"What the government should be doing in this case is showing a determination to find the truth," he said. "What we have is a government determined to do everything but."

Bond sidestepped questions about a public inquiry, repeating earlier comments that Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe has said that a coroner's inquest is the best venue to examine what happened at the sawmill in Burns Lake.

The terms of reference Dix cited included the mandate: "to conduct hearings in Burns Lake and other locations (the inquiry) considers necessary to inquire into and make findings of fact respecting the actions taken by all levels of government, government agencies and delegates, employers and workers leading up to and following the Babine explosion."

The inquiry terms of reference stated the inquiry commission may consider policies and actions of WorkSafeBC, the B.C. government, employers and the fire department. It also could consider policies and processes used by the RCMP in attending and investigating the incident and the determination that no criminal investigation or charge was warranted.

Dix said Vancouver defence lawyer David Crossin vetted the terms of reference and determined they are viable and appropriate for a commission established under B.C.'s Public Inquiries Act.

Families members of the deceased and injured went to the B.C. legislature in March to call for an independent public inquiry.

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.

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.