Three injured in Burns Lake wood pellet mill explosion (updated)

 
 
One man suffered third-degree burns and two other employees were injured in an explosion at a wood pellet plant in Burns Lake on Thursday. Leroy Reitsma, president of Pinnacle Renewable Energy plant said a "fire-related incident" happened at the Burns Lake mill, located on Highway 16 east of Burns Lake, at around 8 a.m. Photograph by: Pinnacle Renewable Energy, ...

One man suffered third-degree burns and two other employees were injured in an explosion at a wood pellet plant in Burns Lake on Thursday.

Leroy Reitsma, president of the Pinnacle Renewable Energy plant said a “fire-related incident” happened at the Burns Lake mill, located on Highway 16 east of Burns Lake, at about 8 a.m. He said the fire broke out inside of some equipment used to dry wood fibre and it caused an explosion.

Pinnacle has been fined on several occasions for safety issues. In May, the pellet plant in Burns Lake was fined $48,483 for a failed safety inspection in December related to combustible dust, while its plant in Strathnaver south of Prince George was fined $36,223, also for safety lapses. Its plant in Quesnel was fined $31,380 following an inspection in May.

The fines were revealed in a Vancouver Sun report in August that showed seven of 10 wood pellet manufacturers failed WorkSafeBC inspections, according to information obtained through a freedom of information request.

Reitsma said Thursday’s explosion happened during a routine maintenance shutdown and the company is working with WorkSafeBC to investigate what happened.

WorkSafeBC received a call shortly after 9 a.m. and sent two investigators to the scene, said Scott McCloy, a spokesman for the work safety agency.

The Burns Lake plant was last inspected on June 17, and no problems were found, said McCloy, adding that “combustible dust issues were being managed.”

Other pellet plants that have received stop work orders over safety concerns are Okanagan Pellet in West Kelowna and Pacific BioEnergy in Prince George.

Pellet plants use wood shavings and sawdust that are compressed into pellets, which are used to fire boilers that produce electricity and steam, or are burned in wood stoves for heat.

An explosion caused extensive damage at Pacific BioEnergy’s pellet plant in Prince George in December 2010, where dust was cited as a factor ignited by a spark. That incident followed back-to-back explosions that rocked the pellet plant in March 2008.

WorkSafeBC has been conducting periodic inspection blitzes after explosions at two sawmills killed four workers and injured dozens of others in 2012.

The safety agency’s focus has mainly been on sawmills — which are showing some improvement in handling dust — but it has also been checking other wood plants.

Pellet plants have experienced explosions in the past, but no workers had been injured until now.
Firefighters from Burns Lake rushed to the plant around 8:30 a.m. By the time they arrived, the flames had been extinguished by its built-in suppression system, according to a statement from the municipality.

Babine Lake First Nation Chief Wilf Adam said he went to the Burns Lake hospital after he heard about the explosion because several members work at the mill. He witnessed one young man being brought in on a stretcher, while two other young men walked into the hospital with facial injuries.
“Two of the men looked really young, and they had bandages on their faces, but they looked like they were OK,” he said.

An employee reached Thursday afternoon refused to comment on the explosion, saying his employer told workers not to speak to the media.

RCMP Cpl. Dave Tyreman said the plant was evacuated after the explosion and about 30 employees were taken to a safe area.

The cause of the fire is unknown and RCMP and WorkSafeBC will continue to investigate.

Jobs Minister Shirley Bond, who oversees WorkSafeBC and implemented recent government changes to mill inspection procedures, noted that the mill had been inspected in June and there were no problems. As of Oct. 1, the government has two dedicated inspectors who examine pellet mills in the province on a monthly basis, she said Thursday at the legislature.

That development came after a report by government-appointed reviewer Gord Macatee into inspection problems at the province’s WorkSafeBC branch, which led to a lack of charges at other mill explosions, Bond said.

“There are 10 facilities in the province and we recognized after the Macatee report there needed to be a focused initiative to deal with pellet plants,” said Bond.
“I don’t want to speculate on what happened here. I’m told that the mill was actually in maintenance mode at the time of the incident.”

Recent WorkSafeBC changes mean that if inspectors find any reason for possible charges relating to the Pinnacle explosion that a separate investigative team will be brought in to preserve evidence related to pursuing that charge, Bond said.

“I wish I could promise to British Columbians today that we would not have workplace incidents,” Bond said. “I wish I could do that and sadly I can’t. What I can do is ensure the process we have in place creates the safest workplaces possible and when there is a tragic or unfortunate incident that we investigate it properly and make sure there are consequences when appropriate to employers.”

The Canadian Wood Pellet Association and The B.C. Forest Safety Council are working together to improve dust safety with the formation of a committee that includes all pellet manufacturers in B.C. A workshop in dust safety was held recently in Prince George.

With files from Gord Hoekstra, Brian Morton and Matthew Robinson
ticrawford@vancouversun.com