09/17/2012 10:28 EDT | Updated 11/17/2012 05:12 EST

Burns Lake Mill To Rebuild

BURNS LAKE, B.C. - A northern British Columbia sawmill that was flattened by a deadly explosion will be rebuilt with leading-edge safety measures, but deals must first be finalized to ensure a sufficient timber supply.

Mill owner Hampton Affiliates announced Monday it has decided to reinvest in the Burns Lake, B.C. operation gutted by fire last January, even as its president called lumber availability "precarious" due to the region's pine beetle scourge.

Negotiations with the province and local First Nations are well underway to secure lumber for at least 20 years, said CEO Steve Zika.

"It's a solid yes, with a 'subject to' or contingency, as the lawyers like to say," Zika told reporters in the tiny community about 200 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C.

"We've heard about a lot of these (assurances), it's been very recent, they all sound good. We just need to see these agreements, get them in place."

The close-knit community of about 4,000 people lost one of its main employers and other economic spinoffs when a fireball ignited Jan. 20, blasting apart the mill while workers were on shift. Two men were killed and 19 others injured, including one person who still remains hospitalized.

"There has been a cloud of despair over the community of Burns Lake," said Al Gerow, chief of the Burns Lake Indian Band. "An announcement like this couldn't come at a better time."

Gerow said the new mill will be dedicated to blast victims Carl Charlie and Robert Luggie Jr.

Hampton Affiliates wants all negotiations for the new Babine Forest Products concluded this fall. A final decision will be made at a board meeting on Dec. 3.

Concrete could be poured as early as this winter if weather permits. The mill would be about two-thirds the size of the original. Upwards of 225 people were previously employed, whereas the new facility would need about half to two-thirds the number of workers.

B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell commended the family that runs Hampton Affiliates on its decision, noting the Oregon-based company has assets in the U.S. but chose to reinvest in the province.

"This is a substantial investment, it is taking a tremendous amount of risk," Bell said. "That is, I think, an enormous vote of confidence in our forest industry."

Bell said the province will extend three new forestry licences to area First Nations and is taking a series of other steps to fulfil the company's logging needs.

The new operation is planned to run 200- to 240 million board feet of lumber with two shifts, whereas the former mill had a capacity of about 350 million board feet. Logging to build up inventory could begin in late 2013, with the mill's opening slated for 2014.

Zika said the new facility will have expansion potential.

"Again, depending on timber supply, it's very uncertain now with a lot of the stuff going on with the pine beetle," he said. "If there were more logs, we could run a third shift and add more volume."

The redesign will also include what Zika described as state-of-the-art dust and cleaning systems, and incorporate other safety measures into the building itself and accompanying equipment.

"The safety infrastructure is going to be much better than the older mills or any mills probably operating in the province," Zika said. "We are taking it very seriously."

Blast survivor Vinh Nguyen said the decision is great for his hometown, but even though he remains unemployed, he's not sure if he'll re-apply.

"My previous job was not that hazardous to begin with, but thinking back on that now, it seems way too dangerous," said the 28-year-old who suffered first and second-degree burns to his face and wrist.

Nguyen said workers need to know they will be safe in the new workplace, and if so, the endeavour will help the community heal.

"If you rebuild and do the same thing, there will be no point, almost. You've got to do everything better, safety-wise and the whole maintenance."

Two months before the explosion, the sawmill was found to have dust levels that were twice the acceptable levels.

In April, an explosion ripped through a second northern B.C. sawmill, killing two more workers.

The disasters prompted WorksafeBC to order all of B.C.'s 300 or so mills to immediately rectify hazardous dust accumulation, which has been fingered as a possible ignition source.

Officials with Lakeland Mills in Prince George said earlier this summer the company will also determine whether to rebuild based on the amount of trees left to cut in area forests.

WorksafeBC has said results of the two mill explosion investigations will be released in the fall.

— By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver