Rebuild of Babine Forest Products sawmill will help Burns Lake community in British Columbia recover economically and psychologically, says Mayor, but former saw filer weighs risks, says some do not wish to return to sawmill work

Wendy Lisney

Wendy Lisney

Dec 5, 2012 – The Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , December 5, 2012 () – Many northern B.C. residents are celebrating the decision to rebuild a B.C. sawmill that had fuelled the economy of a small northern town, but at least one former worker is still weighing the risks of returning to 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 Jan. 20 blast had never occurred. He's since 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 consider laying charges in connection with the deadly explosion and fire.

The blast and fire flattened the mill, killing two workers and injuring several others during the night shift. Wood dust from pine beetle-killed wood was the cause of the explosion, an investigation found.

The new mill will be two-thirds the size of the old mill (due to restricted log availability) and is expected to start up in early 2014.

Last week, as timber supply deals were being firmed up with the B.C. government, Work-SafeBC announced it's asking the Crown to consider charges for violations under the Workers' Compensation Act.

Despite that cloud, officials were embracing the decision as a boon to the town's economy.

"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 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. He said the company is "actively participating" with WorkSafeBC and an industry task force on combustion risks and that the findings will be incorporated into the new mill.

Liberal MLA John Rustad said he has some concerns about the ongoing probe, but noted 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 credited many stakeholder groups with putting in the hard work necessary to make the new mill a reality. He said the last year has been a challenge both economically and psychologically for the community. While the recovery process is long, the rebuild will help, he said.

Al Gerow, chief of the Burns Lake Indian Band and CEO of the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation - an umbrella organization of First Nations that owns 11 per cent of Babine Forest Products - 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.

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