Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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First Nations leaders vow to stand with families

Frank PEEBLES

Citizen staff

Prince George Citizen

Reaction continues to pour in over last week's announcement by provincial Crown prosecutors not to pursue charges against Babine Forest Products owners.

The opposition NDP called the decision, and the investigation of the 2012 sawmill blast in Burns Lake, "bungled" and insisted on an independent second opinion.

Because Babine is a partnership between corporate owners Hampton Affiliates of Oregon and the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation representing the aboriginal land owners, and because a sizable portion of the mill's workforce (including the two fatalities of the blast) are aboriginal, the case had special meaning for First Nations leaders in B.C.

“The families need answers on what happened in the mill explosion. They need to be provided with all of the pertinent documents”, said Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit political executive and a lawyer from the Fort St. James area. “Crown counsel indicated that proceeding with charges would not have been sustainable due to flaws in the investigation. Given the extraordinary circumstances of this tragedy and the gravity of the impacts, we would like to know why didn’t the Crown or WorkSafeBC consider these procedural issues before or at the inception of the investigation?”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, added “we are in complete support of the Luggi and Charlie families as they continue to pursue all of the facts regarding the circumstances that lead to this tragic and horrific accident. We will continue to stand with the families as they seek closure.”

“While we are pleased no criminal or regulatory charges will be approved by Crown Counsel, we never will forget the terrible tragedy and the resulting effects on our employees, their families and the community of Burns Lake," said Steve Zika, CEO of Hampton Affiliates. "We have done our best in the aftermath to care for our affected employees and their families and mitigate the impact on the community."

Zika said he thought the WorkSafeBC investigation was "extensive" and accepted the conclusion that there was no way to verify what spark actually touched off the explosive chain of events. He did say, however, that he and the overall milling industry believed the explosion following the initial fire was the product of wood dust. Since the Babine blast, and the similar Lakeland Mills blast three months later in Prince George, the entire provincial industry has changed its ways.

When the new Babine mill is finished in 2014, it will be designed with dust mitigation in mind, said Zika. Lakeland boss Greg Stewart said the same when the rebuild of that mill was announced this past summer.

"None of our efforts can make up for the tragedy that occurred in Burns Lake that night and the devastating effect it had on our employees, their families, and the community," said Zika. "We shall always share their sorrow and have heavy hearts when we think about Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi, who tragically perished in the accident. However, we and the industry have learned from this tragedy and we are more committed than ever to make thenew Babine sawmill a safe place to work for many years to come."

Stewart declined to comment further on the Babine decision or what might be inferred for the decision still pending on his company.

Provincial Crown declined to comment on when they might produce a decision on Lakeland. Spokesman Neil MacKenzie said final documentation from WorkSafeBC had still not been received by the Criminal Justice Branch.

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