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B.C. sawmill says it exercised due diligence before fatal 2012 explosion

BURNS LAKE, B.C. - A company that owns a British Columbia sawmill destroyed by an explosion and fire two years ago says it will always be sorry for the tragic accident, but it insists there was no way it could have known about the hazards linked to the combustible sawdust that has been blamed for the blast.

Babine Forest Products released a written statement Wednesday following two investigations into the sawmill blast, which killed workers Carl Charlie and Robert Luggi and injured 20 workers in Burns lake in January 2012.

The reports by WorksafeBC and the BC Safety Authority concluded, in part, that the tragedy could have been prevented if the sawmill had taken measures to control sawdust generated by milling beetle-killed wood.

Babine agreed fine sawdust caused the explosion, but the company's statement said it was only after the accident that it learned from studies that dust from beetle-kill wood is much more explosive than dust from green timber.

"To our knowledge, prior to Jan. 20, 2012, no one in the sawmilling industry knew this fact, and no representative of WorkSafe had expressed that fact to the industry, nor had Babine or any other sawmill in British Columbia received a warning related to combustible sawdust from any regulator," the statement said.

It also pointed out that both WorksafeBC and BC Safety Authority concluded Babine had tried to reduce the amount of wood dust in the mill during the two years leading up to the explosion in 2012.

The company also noted that the Crown has decided not to lay charges.

The Crown said two weeks ago that it wouldn't lay criminal or provincial regulatory charges, partly because WorksafeBC's investigation was flawed. That aspect of the decision led Premier Christy Clark to assign her deputy minister to look into the case.

But the Crown also said a conviction was unlikely because Babine would probably be able to prove it exercised due diligence in managing foreseeable risks.

"There is evidence that Babine implemented a series of additional dust mitigation measures starting almost immediately after it began milling beetle-killed wood in 2010," the Crown said in a statement released earlier this month.

Babine's statement highlighted several aspects of the Crown's public explanation for why charges weren't laid.

WorksafeBC inspectors examined the mill site in the fall of 2011 and raised no concerns about explosion risks, the Crown's statement said.

The Crown also said there was evidence dust conditions in the days before the deadly blast were "as good as, or better," than they had been since the mill first began processing beetle-killed wood.

The Crown said it could show that Babine knew settled sawdust could cause spot fires and that it knew the risks of small-dust explosions. But it also said Babine would likely be able to show "it did not foresee and could not reasonably have foreseen" that sawdust could cost such a catastrophic explosion.

The company's statement said if it had known of the sawdust risk, it would have taken steps to address it.

"What happened at Babine was a tragic accident, for which we will always be sorry," the statement said.

"Most accidents are preventable when viewed with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge gained after the fact. Had Babine foreseen the hazard, the company would have taken immediate steps to address the risk, and never have exposed our employees to that risk in operating the facility."

The company said it has learned from the accident.

It said the newly rebuilt sawmill in Burns Lake will have state-of-the-art equipment and systems to collect sawdust, as well as building and floor plans that will facilitate clean-up and reduce areas where sawdust can build up.

The mill is expected to return to full capacity production next month.

Last week, a B.C. Supreme Court lawsuit was filed in Babine's name that alleges a motor supplied by Toshiba led to the fire that sparked the explosion.

Babine said on Wednesday that it had no previous knowledge of the lawsuit, which instead was launched by an insurance company.

— By Vivian Luk in Vancouver

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