Lakeland Mills sawmill warned multiple times before fatal blast

Inspection photos show dust buildup at Prince George facility

Prince George Fire and Rescue inspection photos show buildup of wood dust at Lakeland Mills in Prince George on Nov. 29, 2011, five months before an explosion and fire killed two workers and seriously injured others.

Five months before a deadly explosion at Lakeland Mills sawmill, photos show combustible wood dust built up on ledges, under a machine, and on hand railings, light fixtures and pipes for the water-sprinkler system.

In several photos of the Prince George mill, obtained by The Vancouver Sun under a freedom of information request, the dust is so thick it is visible in the air as hazy, luminescent dots.

A five-year span of fire inspection reports, as well as the Nov. 29, 2011 photos, show Lakeland Mills was warned several times about combustible dust hazards before the April 23 explosion that killed two workers.

Combustible dust is defined in the B.C. Fire Code as “dusts and particles ignitable and liable to produce an explosion.”
WorkSafeBC inspections of the mill, which have been previously reported, noted high levels of dust but keyed on the harm that wood dust could do to workers’ lungs.

Inspection reports by Prince George Fire and Rescue between 2007 and 2012 warned Lakeland about the accumulation of wood dust three times.

View photos of dust-covered sawmill

In November 2011, fire officials cited Lakeland Mills for a “deficiency” under the B.C. Fire Code for not keeping building and machinery surfaces clean of accumulation of combustible dusts.

A followup letter dated a day after the inspection warned Lakeland Mills that parts of the mill had “excessive amounts of accumulated fine wood dust.”

Prince George Fire and Rescue — which has a duty to inspect public buildings, including factories, under B.C.’s Fire Services Act — requested the mill develop and adopt a policy that describes “the procedure, frequency and documentation for the cleanup and removal of this combustible hazard.”

On March 19, 2012, months after a fatal explosion at a sawmill in Burns Lake, Lakeland Mills received yet another warning.
Prince George Fire and Rescue Lieut. Steve Feeney noted in his inspection report the “unacceptable” amount of dust present during the 2011 inspection had been “significantly reduced.”

Nonetheless, the mill was again cited for being “deficient” in not keeping the building and machinery clean of combustible dust. The fire department repeated its request that Lakeland create a cleanup policy.
An explosion and ensuing fire burnt Lakeland Mills to the ground April 23.

Prince George Fire and Rescue chief John Lane declined to answer questions about the inspection reports because the investigation into the explosion is still underway.

“It really would be inappropriate for us to offer any specific comments,” said Lane.
However, in general, deficiencies identified during inspections are “certainly” orders.

“They reflect the measures that are required for the business or the building owner to be in compliance with the fire code, and those orders are followed up until they are complied with,” he said.

Sinclair cct Group president Greg Stewart, which owns the majority of the mill, cautioned against reading too much into the inspection reports.

Dust is a fact of life in mills, Stewart said. Therefore, an inspection immediately after a cleanup would find little dust while an inspection at the end of a shift could find more dust.

He said the mill had increased its cleaning crews to three workers from two in April.
And Stewart pointed to the March fire code inspection report, saying it showed the mill was making improvements.

The Sun had to provide a copy of the inspection reports and photos to the lumber company because it no longer had them. The reports had burned up in the Lakeland Mills explosion and fire, said Stewart.

Lakeland Mills workers told The Sun they believe dust buildup was still a problem in the weeks before the explosion.

Stewart said he couldn’t comment on the workers’ observations because he had no way of knowing what level of dust they were using as a comparison. “In addition to that, I don’t want to speculate that the dust was the cause of this incident,” he said.

Lakeland Mills workers said the wood dust problem had not improved in the weeks leading up to the deadly explosion.

“It was still pretty bad,” said Allan Morin, a 37-year veteran worker whose hands and face were severely burned in explosion.
“The sun would shine into the mill once in a while, and you could see the dust in the air,” he said.

Morin said he was only protected from receiving worse burns because he was sitting in the cab of his machine when the blast tore through the mill.

He described hearing something like an electric zap just before the explosion. “It was like a loud ‘zzzzz’ and all of a sudden the power went out, and then the fireball hit me.”

Morin said an incident that took place in the winter, several months before the explosion, now seems like a warning. A spark from a saw ignited wood dust, creating a small fireball, he said.

Lakeland Mills worker Lorne Hartford also said there was dust buildup in the weeks before the explosion. Hartford said the mill was short-handed, so cleanup was neglected. “It got really bad,” he said.

The Prince George fire department called on Lakeland Mills to create a fire safety plan in September 2008, a request repeated in September 2010, November 2011 and March 2012.

The inspections record noted numerous other deficiencies.

They included that exit lights need to be illuminated at all times when the building is occupied; fire extinguishers must be mounted on wall hangers and protected from dust; fire hoses and nozzles need to be inspected annually, and rated fire doors must be kept closed at all times.

WorkSafeBC has not directly linked the deadly explosions with wood dust, but after the explosion at Lakeland Mills ordered all sawmills in B.C. to clean up wood dust.

An explosion and fire at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake on Jan. 20 also killed two workers and seriously injured others.
Dust samples have been collected at both mills by WorkSafeBC for explosive testing.

ghoekstra@vancouversun.com
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