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Investigation into fatal sawmill explosion in B.C. flawed: premier

Smoke rises as police tape surrounds Abine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, Jan. 21, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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Smoke rises as police tape surrounds Abine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, Jan. 21, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's provincial worker safety agency failed to follow longstanding rules about accident investigations when it probed a fatal mill explosion two years ago, even though the issue had been brought up with WorkSafeBC officials time and time again, says a report released Thursday.

The Crown has said significant evidence gathered by WorkSafeBC could not have been presented in court — one factor in the decision not to lay any regulatory charges against the mill owner.

Premier Christy Clark, who subsequently ordered a review of the WorkSafeBC investigation, said the agency's work was unacceptable and she immediately adopted the report's recommendations. Clark also appointed an independent adviser to oversee their implementation and make further recommendations, if necessary.

"I'm deeply disappointed with the way WorkSafe conducted this investigation," Clark said. "This must be fixed."

Clark said she had met with George Morfitt, chairman of WorkSafeBC, and Labour Minister Shirley Bond and "made my expectations to WorkSafe crystal clear."

Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie were killed and 20 others injured when a fire and explosion destroyed the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C., on Jan. 20, 2012.

The decision not to press regulatory charges will not be reviewed and there will be no public inquiry, Clark said.

Report author John Dyble, deputy minister to the premier and the head of the public service, consulted an outside legal expert, who said a Crown decision to approve or not approve charges is not a proper subject for such review.

The report and recommendations were of little solace to Luggi's wife, Maureen.

"This file may be closed for the premier's office, but it will not be closed for our families because there is no measure of justice and there is no measure of accountability," she said after a conference call with Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad.

The report makes 13 recommendations in four categories, including improving interaction between investigating and prosecuting agencies and improving procedures within WorkSafe.

Dyble found that after the criminal justice branch announced there would be no regulatory charges, WorkSafe officials offered misleading statements to the public.

In particular, the agency said that since 1996, 31 cases referred to the Crown using the same investigation method had been approved for charges. Twenty-four of them had resulted in a conviction, the agency said at the time.

"This statement is misleading in how it characterized the situation," the report said.

In fact, the report noted that WorkSafe had submitted only five Occupation Health and Safety-related cases to the Crown after 2002, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that once an investigation shifts from determining the cause of an event to collecting evidence, the rules change. In two of those cases, the branch raised the high court decision with WorkSafe.

Harry Bains, the labour critic for the Opposition New Democrats, said there remain many unanswered questions about the investigation and the explosion itself.

"No one is held accountable for their actions," Bains said. "As WorkSafeBC put it, it was a preventable incident. And if it was a preventable incident, why wasn't it prevented?"

Bains said a report by the B.C. Safety Authority, which was held back at the request of WorkSafeBC and the deputy attorney general, should be released.

"The family and all the workers have questions," Bains said, reiterating his call for a public inquiry despite the report's finding.

A coroner's inquest will be held to investigate the deaths of Luggi and Charlie.

Both RCMP and WorkSafe recommended there be no criminal charges in connection to their deaths. Although the Crown declined to pursue regulatory charges recommended by WorkSafe, the agency said fines and other penalties are still under consideration.

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