British Columbia authorities are scrambling to find answers to what caused Monday's fatal explosion at the Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George. What's more, they are looking for any common denominators to the eerily similar and equally catastrophic Jan. 20 blast at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake, BC.
Workers at each of the scenes described witnessing massive explosions that produced huge fireballs. Each of the accidents destroyed a sawmill, killed two workers and injured more than 20 additional employees.
WorkSafeBC, which only completed its phase one investigation of the Babine Forest Products explosion last week, has also turned its attention to the Lakeland Mills disaster. The provincial safety agency's twin investigations will in part focus on determining what role combustible dust might have played in either or both blasts.
Adding intrigue to the search for a ComDust link, is the fact that both sawmills reportedly were largely processing logs infested by the pesky mountain pine beetle. The beetle infestation not only kills the trees, but robs the logs of moisture content, producing a drier, finer and potentially more explosive dust when sawn. (See video at the footer of this posting, "Lodgepole Pine Infected with Mountain Pine Beetle," taken at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, posted by RobMutch1.)
Yesterday, WorkSafeBC released five years worth of inspection records of Lakeland Mills indicating that concerns of high combustible dust levels had been raised in the past, including in February. Three years ago, inspectors expressed concern about how exceedingly dry the wood being processed was because of pine beetle infestation.
BC Issues Crack Down on ComDust
While WorkSafetBC has not issued any pronouncement that pine beetle infested lumber caused the sawmill explosions, it made it clear that it is not taking any chances. Earlier today, WorkSafeBC issued a directive to all sawmill employers, ordering them "without undue delay" to:
* "undertake a comprehensive risk assessment with respect to hazards created by combustible dusts, which assessment must include a thorough inspection of the employer’s facility, and
* "develop and implement an effective combustible dust control program based on the risk assessment."
What's more the directive warns employers to expect a visit from an agency inspector by May 9. Sawmills that fail to comply risk sanctions, including the possibility of a forced shut down.
This seemingly draconian reaction follows comments by Britsh Columbia Labor Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, who while falling short of saying combustible dust is the culprit, did say, "There's a common factor here and we're all aware of it, and it's sawdust. Although we don't know what caused the initial fires or explosions, we know that sawdust may be a factor."