BY GORDON HOEKSTRA, VANCOUVER SUN
Two of the former top guns at WorkSafeBC are not scheduled to testify at a coroner's inquest into the Lakeland Mills sawmill explosion that killed two workers in 2012.
The United Steelworkers union says its request was rejected to have former WorkSafeBC president and CEO David Anderson and former vice-president in charge of investigations Donna Wilson called as witnesses. The inquest, overseen by chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, began Monday in Prince George.
Anderson and Wilson held their positions during the Lakeland explosion and another deadly sawmill explosion at Babine Forest Products earlier in 2012, both fuelled by wood dust. Anderson retired in 2014 and Wilson left WorkSafeBC in 2013, after a three-year stint, for another job.
There are other senior WorkSafeBC executives scheduled to testify at the inquest, including two vice-presidents.
But the union considers Anderson and Wilson key players in helping to provide full answers in the Lakeland explosion because they would reveal the state of knowledge, at the highest levels, of the explosive nature of wood dust and what was learned in the investigation into the Babine explosion that occurred three months before the Lakeland explosion.
United Steelworkers director of Western Canada Steve Hunt said it was "shocking" Anderson was not testifying. "What did they know prior to Lakeland that they didn't disclose, or better yet, why didn't they disclose it?" said Hunt. "And I think that's a question only David Anderson can answer."
The conduct of WorkSafeBC will be in the forefront at the inquest, where at least one worker complained of the explosive risk of wood dust to his superiors, according to testimony on Monday reported by The Prince George Citizen.
In a 2012 investigation, The Vancouver Sun reported that several months before the Lakeland explosion a spark from a saw ignited wood dust, creating a small fireball, an incident recounted at the inquest Monday. The Sun also reported Prince George Fire and Rescue had raised concerns about wood dust buildup in the mill during inspections between 2007 and 2012, and there had been instances as far back as 2007 where WorkSafeBC has raised wood dust as an explosive concern at sawmills.
A WorkSafeBC investigation released in 2014 also noted that an anonymous worker called the safety agency concerned about excessive buildup of wood dust at Lakeland and feared the mill would explode like Babine had.
However, a WorkSafeBC officer who inspected the mill as a result of the call, and found wood dust, did not issue any cleanup or stop-work orders.
Union lawyer John Rogers said the coroner ruled orally that Anderson and Wilson were not useful or appropriate as witnesses.
After The Sun inquired Monday about the reasons, B.C. Coroners Service spokeswoman Barbara McLintock said the coroner will consider other witnesses after the current list of 47 witnesses have all testified.
Earlier, Lapointe, the chief coroner, said the inquest was the best venue to address the many "important questions and concerns" over the deadly explosion. Lapointe noted that subpoenaed witnesses must testify and address all questions put to them.
The B.C. Liberal government has also said the inquest is the best way to get answers, rejecting a call from the union, families of the killed workers, First Nations and the NDP for an inquiry into the explosions and role of WorkSafeBC, perhaps headed by a former or sitting judge.
WorkSafeBC spokesman Scott McCloy declined Monday to respond to questions on the safety agency's position on the participation of Anderson and Wilson as witnesses. He referred questions to the coroner service.
In a Feb. 24 letter to John Orr, the B.C. coroner's lawyer, WorkSafeBC argued the two former senior executives were not needed to testify because they would not have knowledge of the details of the explosion and issues such as training of investigators. In the letter provided by the United Steelworkers, WorkSafeBC said the other senior executives testifying, including Al Johnson and Ian Munroe, have "actual knowledge of the matters in issue."
Johnson is vice-president of prevention services and Munroe is vice-president of employer, industry and worker services.
Other WorkSafeBC officials that are scheduled to testify include Jeff Dolan, director of investigations, and Barry Nakahara, a regional prevention manager.