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Babine Forest Products escapes charges for sawmill fire that killed two in B.C. in 2012

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No charges will be laid against the owners of Babine Forest Products for the fire and explosion that destroyed its sawmill located in Burns Lake, B.C. in January 2012. The explosion killed two workers and injured dozens.

The Criminal Justice Branch (CJB) of the British Columbia government announced on January 10 that it was dropping the case into four administrative charges that WorkSafe BC  (Workers Compensation Board) had recommended. It is also dropping criminal charges that it is empowered to extract from the evidence gathered.

Prosecutors say the workplace safety agency's investigation was flawed, including that it rendered certain evidence inadmissable in court. An informative article on the matter is published in the Prince George Citizen.

Worksafe BC is defending its actions against criticism, saying its investigation of the Babine mill explosion was similar to many others that have led to prosecutions and convictions for workplace accidents. It's full report on the sawmill explosion is due on Thursday.

Both workers killed and many of the injured were citizens of the Lake Babine Nation. Reacting to the crown counsel decision, Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit Political Executive said, “The families need answers on what happened in the mill explosion, they need to be provided with all of the pertinent documents.” Other First Nations' reactions can be found here.

“Crown Counsel indicated that proceeding with charges would not have been sustainable due to flaws in the investigation. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the of this tragedy and the gravity of the impacts, we would like to know why didn’t the Crown or WorkSafe BC consider these procedural issues before or at the inception of the investigation?”

Another sawmill explosion took place three months after the Burns Lake explosion, also killing two workers. It occurred at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George.

The explosions were caused by two factors—the increased processing of mountain pine beetle-killed trees that are much drier than typical logs handled by sawmills in the past, and inadequate procedures for regularly cleaning sawmills of accumulated sawdust. The latter is caused in part by the extension of the number of hours per days and per week that sawmills are running, thus reducing the time for sawdust cleaning.

Vancouver Sun columnist Ian Mulgrew has written a sharply critical column examining the decision by prosecutors to not proceed with charges. He says the decision "raises too many questions" and an independent review is needed. Mulgrew writes further:

We have seen this reluctance to prosecute before from the CJB [Criminal Justice Branch] when the strength of a case lies somewhere between more-than-the-Criminal-Code standard of prima facie and the CJB threshold of must be a veritable slam dunk.

For instance, it refused to lay charges in the 1998 Frank Paul case without reviewing the video of the 48-year-old Mi’kmaq man being dragged unconscious from Vancouver police custody and dumped in a freezing alley where he died. The CJB decided there wasn’t a “substantial likelihood” of convicting the officers of failing to provide reasonable care.

Similarly, in December 2008, it said the RCMP used reasonable force to subdue Robert Dziekanski, who was Tasered and died at YVR Oct. 14, 2007, and there wasn’t a “substantial likelihood” of conviction.

Both of those cases led to expensive public inquiries.

A full dossier on the two sawmill explosions can be read on the website "A Socialist in Canada."

As a result of the pine beetle infestation, two large sawmills in northern BC announced this past fall that they would close permanently--the West Fraser mill Houston and the Canfor mill in Quesnel. Close to 1,000 workers are losing their jobs and the communities are taking a heavy hit to their taxation base.

Rising temperatures caused by global warming have greatly reduced the only natural impediment to the populations of the mountain pine beetle, namely, winter temperatures hitting minus 20 C or colder. The insect has devastated pine forests throughout western North America. In the past few years, it has crossed the Rocky Mountains for the first time. The Rockies have been the beetle species' only natural barrier since time immemorial to the vast forests of northern and eastern Canada.

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