Set to resume next month, plenty of ground has already been covered over the two-and-a-half weeks the coroner’s inquest into the fatal Lakeland Mills sawmill explosion has been held so far.
By the time it was temporarily adjourned on March 26, the inquest had heard from 47 witnesses, beginning with the widows of Al Little and Glenn Roche, who died from the extensive burns they suffered in the April 23, 2012 blast.
Another 22 people were injured, many seriously.
With photos of the two deceased placed next to coroner Lisa Lapointe, testimony followed from employees at the sawmill who either worked alongside Little and Roche or were in the facility on the night in question.
What they had to say made for some gripping accounts and set the scene for a jury who has been asked to make recommendations to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
And no sooner did those employees begin to speak than questions started to be raised, notably about a “near miss” three months before.
Near the end of the day shift on Jan. 19, 2012, a saw on the large headrig Roche operated “deviated” throwing up sparks and lighting the nearby sawdust. That’s not unheard of in a sawmill, but this time it also sent a burst of flame high enough to nearly hit the ceiling as it climbed the sawdust floating in the air.
The incident heightened a concern Roche already had about the mill’s cleanliness. Lakeland added a third shift midway through 2011 to increase its output of lumber made from beetle-killed pine, which kicked up a particularly fine and dry sawdust.
What’s more, in the days following the incident, Little, a supervisor at the sawmill, twice stopped production to have trouble areas cleaned up. Yet an internal report apparently authored by Little on what happened never made it to upper management and the incident was never reported to Prince George Fire Rescue because no one was hurt and there was no structural damage.
But perhaps the comment that most closely drove home the significance of the event came from Paul Orr, WorkSafeBC’s lead investigator on the explosion that eventually rocked Lakeland. If not for one missing component in the recipe for an explosion – compression – he said there likely would have been an one on that day rather than three months later.
As it stood, Babine Forest Products near Burns Lake became the first victim of what safety authorities and sawmill operators have claimed throughout the inquest was a new phenomena – a full-on blast fueled by wood dust. Babine was leveled the day after the burst of flame at the Lakeland headrig, killing two employees and injuring 20 others.
That such explosions could occur in more confined spaces like baghouses, where sawdust sucked away through elaborate collection systems would end up, was common knowledge throughout the industry.
But for one to occur in a relatively open facility like the main operating area of a sawmill itself was unprecedented, officials have consistently stressed.
And in the days that followed Babine, there was a reluctance by WorkSafeBC in particular to raise any possibilities about the causes until all the facts were in. Should investigators have at least given a heads up regarding the possibilities they were considering? (Natural gas and methane were also among the candidates for fuels).
According to conventional wisdom, the inquest heard more than once, it’s best to wait rather than lead operators down the wrong path and away from something they may already be doing to address what they may think is the problem.
Yet hunches were already being pursued, at least by one Lakeland employee.
A bit more than two weeks after the blast at Babine, WorkSafeBC received an anonymous phone call in which a concern about the Lakeland’s condition was raised along with a concern it could become the “next Babine sawmill.”
The call came on a Friday afternoon and on the subsequent Monday morning, two inspectors paid an unannounced visit to the sawmill. Other than perhaps a bit more dust than usual, they did not notice anything but did not give the facility a thorough check.
It just so happened a Lakeland employee took photos that same day of some less easily-reached areas where high levels of dust had piled up and, after the blast, he turned them over to WorkSafeBC investigators. Coroner’s counsel John Orr made extensive use of them as he confronted witnesses about the mill’s condition.
Arguably, the inspectors’ visit amounted to another missed opportunity to alert Lakeland regarding the seriousness of the problem.
But by the same token, management started to take action, the inquest heard, including hiring on more cleanup staff and shopping for an industrial-strength vacuum system to help workers more thoroughly deal with the dust.
Just 11 days before the explosion, representative of a supplier visited Lakeland. He also took photos and they showed some alarming piles, particularly near the area where WorkSafeBC investigators concluded the explosion originated.
The representative told the inquest he warned Lakeland officials at the time but conversely, they said they never heard any such call for concern. In any case, it did appear Lakeland was ready to buy a system but it was going to take about six weeks to get it delivered and, in the interim, the explosion occurred.
Underlying the whole proceeding has been the question of whether a coroner’s inquest is the right venue.
Critics, notably the Opposition New Democrats and the United Steelworkers, have called for a public inquiry, which they say would have the power to find fault, something an inquest does not do.
The provincial government has stood its ground although it compromised somewhat.
Originally, a single inquest was going to be held in Prince George for both the Lakeland and Babine explosions, but after some protest, there will now be a separate inquest for Babine, to start July 13 in Burns Lake.
Perhaps in answer to the criticism, the tone has often been confrontational with coroner’s counsel John Orr in particular quizzing witnesses on apparent inconsistencies in their testimony and other counsel following suit.
Even the jury members continued the trend to some extent when given their opportunities to ask the witnesses questions.
That apparently has not been good enough for the USW who withdrew its counsel shortly after its Western Canada director, Stephen Hunt, completed his testimony, and issued a statement continuing its call for a public inquiry.
Meanwhile, coroner’s counsel John Orr began leaning on Lakeland to release the results of an investigation it had commissioned into the blast.
At the same time, he told the inquest he had also learned that even though it was subject to privilege, Lakeland’s counsel had offered to share the information it had gleaned with WorkSafeBC to help with its investigation only to be rebuffed.
After a bit of deliberation, Lakeland counsel Gavin Marshall handed over UBS devices containing material from the investigation and Orr convinced Lapointe to adjourn the proceeding to give him time to review the material.
Orr als said he will be summoning David Anderson, who was the WorkSafeBC president at the time, to answer questions about the decision to turn down Lakeland’s offer.
That Anderson was not called in the first place has been an issue for the USW.
There has also been the question of whether an inquest can add anything.
The jury, reduced from seven at the start to five, will be asked to make recommendations on how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
But when given the chance, WorkSafeBC and other officials have emphasized that much has changed and that there is now an industry-wide recognition that wood dust can fuel explosions, not just fires, in sawmills.
Steps have been taken accordingly, they say, to deal with the issue.
Similarly, the jury was shown the many features incorporated into the new Lakeland sawmill to keep such a conflagration from ever happening again.
The inquest was first expected to wrap up by March 20 but that deadline was soon thrown out the window as it quickly became apparent lawyers representing the coroner, USW, WorkSafeBC, Lakeland and, to a lesser extent, the B.C. Safety Authority, were going to take witnesses through extensive questioning.
Just a handful of witnesses are left to testify, but given how long it’s taken so there’s no telling when the jury will start deliberations.
Either way, both the proceedings and the idea of an inquest itself has generated plenty of controversy.
The inquest resumes on May 11 at the Prince George courthouse.