Marking the fourth anniversary of the Babine sawmill explosion, five groups from across the province renewed their calls for a public inquiry into the 2012 Lakeland Mills and Babine explosions.
The five groups include the United Steelworkers, the B.C. Federation of Labour, the First Nations Summit, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.
The five groups released a joint statement on Jan. 20, 2016, saying the inquests held in 2015 left the families and the victims with “more questions than answers.”
Coroner’s inquests were held in 2015 into the Babine Forest Products explosion, as well as the explosion that occurred three months later at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George.
“No justice or substantive changes resulted from these inquests,” says the groups’ joint statement. “Questions remain unanswered, including ‘why did the policies and practices that were supposed to protect workers fail to do so?’”
The inquest into the Babine explosion concluded Aug. 31, 2015, with 41 recommendations to improve safety in the industry. However, those recommendations are not enforceable, and the deaths of Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie – both killed in the Babine explosion – were ruled accidental.
While a coroner’s inquest is designed to find recommendations to avoid similar incidents from occurring, an inquiry can appoint legal blame.
Maureen Luggi, spouse of Robert Luggi, killed in the 2012 Babine explosion, said that while she was satisfied with the inquest held in Burns Lake – saying that it brought a sense of closure for her – she is also glad that political groups are advocating for workers and family members of victims.
“Now that our families have had an opportunity to debrief, we are realizing that maybe the inquest didn’t go far enough in addressing real change in WorkSafeBC and overall how the RCMP conduct their investigations,” she said.
Maureen said she knew from the start that the recommendations from the inquest were not enforceable.
“I still liked the recommendations from Robert and Carl’s inquest and I consider them to be excellent recommendations; unfortunately, no one has to enforce them,” she said.
Lucy Campbell, sister of Carl Charlie, who was also killed in the Babine explosion, did not want to provide any comments about the renewed calls for a public inquiry.
After the inquest held in Burns Lake, Lucy, who has called for an inquiry herself, said she was disappointed that nobody was held responsible for the mill deaths.
“Somebody didn’t do their job,” said Lucy shortly after the inquest. “If this was all preventable, and they [the jury] acknowledged it, then someone should have been held responsible.”
In January 2014, the B.C. Ministry of Justice’s criminal justice branch decided not to pursue charges against the owners of Babine Forest Products that were recommended by WorkSafeBC under the workers compensation act. As a result, WorkSafeBC imposed an administrative penalty against Babine Forest Products of just over $1 million. The company appealed that penalty and that process has not reached a conclusion yet.
Steve Zika, Chief Executive Officer of Hampton Affiliates – company that owns Babine Forest Products, said none of his employees has approached him requesting another inquiry or asking for additional information, and that he doesn’t think an inquiry would be necessary.
“The original inquest was very detailed and thorough and I don’t believe there is any new information that hasn’t already been discussed or analyzed,” he said.
A couple of months after the Babine inquest, Zika said the sawmill had complied with the “vast majority” of the coroner’s inquest recommendations.
Shirley Bond, B.C. Minister of Jobs, said that while the provincial government recognizes that some would like to see a public inquiry, it’s important to remember that a public inquiry would not change the outcome of the Crown’s decision to not pursue charges.
Bond said the provincial government has taken definitive action to improve workplace safety in B.C. since the mill explosions.
A review of the workers’ compensation system was undertaken under the guidance of Gord Macatee, and all 43 recommendations in his July 2014 report have been accepted by government and by WorkSafeBC. Government passed legislation last year to implement the recommendations directed to the Ministry of Jobs. In addition, Bond said recommendations from the two inquests held in 2015 were taken “very seriously” by government and that “steps have been taken” to respond to those recommendations.
Shane Simpson, NDP Labor Critic, said that while the provincial government promised full support for the workers and their families at the time of the Babine tragedy, it never delivered.
“The families wanted an independent inquiry where they would get answers on who was responsible and why,” he said. “Instead they got an inquest where those questions were never answered; so today we see the families and workers at Babine and Lakeland coming together with a class-action lawsuit in hopes of getting to the bottom of this.”
Earlier this month, a group of workers and family members of victims involved in the 2012 mill explosions launched a class-action lawsuit against WorkSafeBC and the province.
Simpson added that while the jury at the inquest made good recommendations about future operations, the fundamental questions about responsibility and possible negligence were never answered.
“How WorkSafeBC mishandled the investigation was never addressed effectively,” he said. “Those answers will require an independent inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses if we want to get to the bottom of this; the workers at Babine deserve that.”