British Columbia appoints administrator to drive changes to WorkSafeBC investigations after Crown's decision not to lay charges for 2012 explosion at Lakeland Mills in Prince George; postholder can make staffing, organizational changes, says minister

PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia , April 15, 2014 () – A special administrator has been appointed to drive changes to serious investigations at WorkSafeBC after no charges were laid in a second deadly sawmill explosion investigation, in part because the investigation was mishandled.

Gord Macatee, a former senior B.C. bureaucrat, is responsible for ensuring WorkSafeBC can conduct complex investigations, Labour Minister Shirley Bond said Monday. She made the announcement after the Crown decided not to lay charges in a 2012 mill explosion that killed two men.

The wood dust-fuelled explosion at Lakeland Mills on April 23, 2012 killed Glenn Roche, 46, and Alan Little, 43. Another 22 workers were injured, some with severe burns.

While Crown said Monday that Lakeland Mills would have had a good case of due diligence to defend itself in court, some evidence would be inadmissible because of how WorkSafeBC conducted its investigation.

Asked how WorkSafeBC was being held accountable for the two botched investigations, Bond said Macatee has the authority to make staffing and organizational changes at WorkSafeBC. He also will be examining how regulation and enforcement are separated in other workplace safety agencies, and help appoint a new CEO. WorkSafeBC's CEO, David Anderson, is retiring at 65 later this year.

Macatee, who has held several deputy minister positions, including health, and is taking a leave as commissioner of the B.C. Ferry Commission, must provide a status report by July 1.
"I am deeply sorry for what the families and our community have had to go through, and we owe it to them to ensure that this never happens again," said Bond.

Crown's dismissal of charges sparked renewed calls from the NDP opposition and families of victims for an independent public inquiry.

The B.C. Liberal government has shown no appetite for such an inquiry.

Instead Bond said the Coroner's office would be holding an inquest into the Lakeland Mills explosion, as is being done for the Babine Forest Products explosion on Jan. 20 in Burns Lake, which also killed two workers.

In its 14-page statement released Monday, Crown counsel noted WorkSafeBC had not obtained search warrants, a criticism it also made in rejecting charges in the Babine explosion.

Because some evidence would not be admissible without search warrants, Crown said it would be unable to establish details surrounding the factual case of the fire and explosion, including how the fire was believed to have started on a piece of equipment in the basement and ignited a fireball of wood dust at Lakeland Mills.

The Crown also noted that, as in the Babine investigation, WorkSafeBC did not use major case management methodology in the Lakeland investigation.

Crown also said a number of areas of potentially relevant evidence were left unexplored, including the state of knowledge of Lakeland directors, officers and members of management on wood dust conditions in the mill and the explosion hazard.

WorkSafeBC had already been rebuked by B.C. Premier Christy Clark for its handling of the Babine explosion.

Following an internal review released in February, Clark ordered WorkSafeBC and the Criminal Justice Branch to improve their relationship.

She also appointed an independent adviser, veteran Vancouver lawyer Leonard Doust, to ensure review recommendations are implemented and to add others if needed.

Recommendations include improved communication, training, legal advice during investigations, and regular information meetings.

Bond said progress is being made on those recommendations, but that Macatee's appointment will ensure needed changes take place at WorkSafeBC.

There was a lot of outrage from Lakeland workers during Criminal Justice Branch's meeting with them on Monday, said Ronda Roche, whose husband Glenn was killed in the explosion.
She said she was expecting the worst from the Crown decision, and said it showed the province's safety system had failed.

Roche said the promised changes from the provincial government do not suffice, and she will now join with families of the Babine victims in pushing for an inquiry. "We need to know all the details and where the system went wrong," she said. "As far as I'm concerned the question for Christy Clark should be: 'Why not an inquiry?' What is she trying to hide."

Mill worker Lorne Hartford said he was disappointed in the Crown decision.

"I was hoping they would hold somebody personally responsible so that managers in the other mills would take heed," said Hartford.

NDP leader Adrian Dix said the decision not to lay charges underscores the need for a full public and independent investigation into the investigations into the two explosions.

"We are going to keep the pressure on the government. They have utterly failed. And the decision of the Liberals to put their political interests ahead of justice or families must not continue," said Dix.

Crown said Monday there was enough admissible evidence to show sawdust was in the mill on April 23 and that it was a significant source of fuel for the fire and explosion.

But Crown concluded Lakeland would likely be able to show that it did not foresee, and could not have reasonably foreseen, the sawdust-related fire and explosion hazard that caused the incident.

While there had been a sawdust fire on Jan. 19, 2012, that is reported to have had a column of burning sawdust that rose to the ceiling, it couldn't be proved it was a combustible dust fire, noted Crown.

A WorkSafeBC officer with training in combustible dust issues who inspected the mill on Feb. 3, 2012 as a result of an anonymous dust complaint - where the person expressed concern of the "next Burns Lake sawmill" - did not believe there was a widespread problem of excessive dust at Lakeland.

There is also evidence that Lakeland was taking steps to manage dust accumulations, noted Crown.

Lakeland Mills declined to comment Monday, saying it was still reviewing the Crown's decision.

ghoekstra@vancouversun.com

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