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Mill ordered to pay for fatal fire

Penalties and levies totalling more than $724,000 have been imposed on a company that owns a northern British Columbia sawmill which was flattened by a fire.

The May 12, 2012 blaze at Prince George's Lakeland Mills Ltd. claimed the lives of 43-year-old Alan Little and 46-year-old Glen Roche.

The province's Criminal Justice Branch announced earlier this year it would not lay charges against the company because it feared the evidence collected wouldn't be admissible in court.

But WorkSafeBC, the agency that investigates workplace accidents in the province, says it has completed an inspection report and found the company breached the Workers Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulations.

It has ordered the company to pay a $97,500 penalty and a $626,663 levy for breaching the act and the regulations.

"The dollar value of a penalty or claims cost levy does not and cannot reflect the loss of lives and the pain and suffering of workers and families," the agency states on its website, adding the company has the right to appeal and review the penalties.

The order follows a similar $1-million ruling in April by WorkSafeBC against Hampton Affiliates, the owners of the Babine mill.

Lakeland Mills president Greg Stewart responded to Tuesday's report with a written statement, saying the company had just been notified earlier in the day.

"It will take some time to review the information," he said. "Only then will we be in a position to respond to WorkSafeBC’s allegations."

Shane Simpson, the New Democratic labour critic, called the penalties and assessments a slap on the wrist and of cold comfort to the families of the workers killed and the survivors.

He reiterated calls for an independent inquiry.

"We haven't got to the bottom of this," he said. "We haven't found closure for the families, and I'm afraid that's not going to happen until we have the kind of independent inquiry that has been called for across the board by most people other than the government."

The fire at the mill broke out at about 9:30 p.m. on April 23, 2012, and WorkSafeBC found the mill's northeast corner exploded outward. A few seconds later another section, known as the bag house, erupted in flames, it found.

The explosion travelled east to west through the mill's operating level, destroying the mill, killing and injuring the workers.

All the evidence indicated wood dust was dispersed throughout the mill and in a high-enough concentration to explode, stated a WorkSafeBC report issued in May.

The report noted the primary explosion occurred an area of about three-square metres which was surrounded by a conveyor, steel-plated ceiling and exterior wall.

The report described the important relationship between containment and a fuel-like wood dust.

"If these components are contained and ignition occurs, the pressure develops to a degree that typically is violent and destructive," it stated.

The friction that ignited the blaze was caused when a piece of equipment known as a gear-reducer cooling fan failed, and a rotating shaft generated friction, heat and a temperature of 577 degrees Celsius, the report added.

As a result, the airborne dust burned away in the containment zone during the primary explosion and the secondary explosions, and fire levelled the mill, it stated.

The report also cited several underlying factors.

There was a lack of a dust-collection system and ineffective dust-control measures, as well as ineffective maintenance and inspection of the gear reducers, it found.

The configuration of the waste conveyor increased airborne wood dust as well, and wood and weather conditions played a role, the report noted.

"The weather conditions resulted in a very dry environment with low humidity," it stated. "The condition was compounded by the very dry beetle-killed wood. The dusts produced were drier, finer and migrated throughout the mill."

Finally, the report cited "inadequate supervision of clean-up and maintenance staff."

The agency said it has ordered every B.C. sawmill to assess the risks and hazards of combustible dust and implement effective dust-control programs.

Followup inspections have been ordered by WorkSafeBC at other sawmills and wood-processing operations, and the agency has ordered hazard alerts for gear reducers and wintertime conditions when there are increased risks.

The Canadian Press

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