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Sawdust may be factor in two mill explosions, says minister

All British Columbia sawmills will be inspected to make sure they are following all safety measures, Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said following the second explosion to destroy a B.C. mill this year.

"These explosions, two of them in such short order, are extraordinary," said MacDiarmid. "There are people who have worked in this industry for over 30 years and have never seen an accident of this type."

The fire at the Lakeland Mill in Prince George started April 23 was still burning as she spoke. It killed one worker and injured 24. In January an explosion and fire destroyed the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake and killed two workers.

WorkSafe BC is still investigating the Burns Lake fire and it is too early to say for certain what caused it, MacDiarmid said.

"There's a common factor here and we're all aware of it, and it's sawdust," she said. "We know that sawdust may be a factor."

WorkSafe, with her support, is sending an order to inspect all mills for compliance with safety measures, she said. WorkSafe officials will be involved in those inspections, she said.

She is also meeting tomorrow with representatives of WorkSafe, the Council of Forest Industries and the United Steelworkers Union.

Earlier in the day Independent MLA Bob Simpson said there may be something about the wood from trees killed by mountain pine beetles that makes it more compustible. There are anecdotal reports of resin and dust from the wood on equipment catching fire, he said.

"I applaud the government," said Simpson. "I think this is one of those circumstances where the minister is stepping out. We don't have good information, it is pure speculation, but it is based on information that's available."

Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell said he had toured the Prince George mill several times and that it was very clean. He also said it is unknown what kind of wood was being milled at Lakeland but more should be known soon.

Update, April 25, 2012, 10:30 a.m.: A second worker, 46-year-old Glenn Francis Roche, has died following the explosion and fire at the Lakeland sawmill. The government also released the name of the first person to die, Alan Little, who was 43 years old.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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