Hundreds of locals poured into the Island Gospel Church on Monday night to ask questions of local officials, government representatives and Hampton Affiliates CEO Steve Zika.
Hampton Affiliates own a 90 per cent share of Babine Forest Products.
After days of uncertainty following the Jan. 20 explosion and fire at the Babine Forest Products sawmill, many said they had gone through enough. “We want answers and we want them now,” said Melvin Joseph to Steve Zika, Hampton Affiliates CEO.
Zika, Northern Health’s Lakes District health services administrator April Hughes, Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad, Lake Babine Nation Chief Wilf Adam, Burns Lake Band Chief Albert Gerow, Burns Lake Fire and Rescue Department fire chief Jim McBride, Mayor Luke Strimbold, St. Sgt. Grant MacDonald from the Burns Lake RCMP, Regional District of Bulkley Nechako area B director Bill Miller and Shelley Browne, constituency assistant to MP Nathan Cullen, as well as representatives from the B.C. Coroners Service and Worksafe B.C. updated the public on the incident.
During the meeting, angry mill employees accused Hampton Affiliates and Babine Forest Products management of putting profits and production before safety, by running the mill when there was a gas leak problem. The accusations made by employees remain to be proven in the numerous investigations that are now underway.
Zika said to the community that he was sorry for the tragedy. “Hampton Affiliates have been in this business for 60 years and have never experienced anything like this before.” He said, despite all the negatives, he is proud of the heroes and all those that put their lives at risk.
“We have received prayers from all over the world … everyone wants to help.”
Zika said the company is unable to access the mill site due to the investigation into the explosion and fire, however he said they are able to enter the administrative offices.
“We have not been able to assess the emergency system or the dry kilns to determine if they are in working order.”
Zika said he has no answers about when, or even if the mill will reopen, and added that at some point, when access to the site has been granted they will move the remaining unprocessed inventory off the site. He added that he is unsure how this will happen or where the logs will be moved to at this point.
Zika confirmed that the mill was insured, but said the company has to wait until assessors determine how much money they are entitled to. “There is no way to estimate the dollar amount or the time it will take [to receive].”
It could cost up to $100 million to rebuild the sawmill and with a dwindling supply of timber due to the mountain pine beetle, Zika said that the mill’s timber supply is a key factor around rebuilding.
He said he hopes the government fast track their decision on future timber supply issues in the area.
“Only with a secure mid term timber supply will it be feasible …. the evaluation could take several months. The more support we receive from the community, the more impact it will have on government decisions.”
He also cautioned that an increase to Hampton’s timber supply may also have a negative effect on other sawmills competing for timber in the area.
Zika cautioned mill employees that even if the decision is made to rebuild, the process will take months or even years. He estimated that rebuilding the mill and going through a design and permitting phase could take up to 18 months to complete, and that’s after all the investigations have been completed. “I wish I had more definitive answers for you.”
Chief Gerow, president of Burns Lake Native Development Corporation (BLNDC) that holds a minority stake in the mill, said the mill must be rebuilt.
He said the loss of the mill impacts everyone in the community. “We are all brothers and sisters here in Burns Lake. We are family. The hospital staff performed miracles that night … they really did.”
Chief Gerow said, “The late George Brown had a dream that a sawmill would be built in Burns Lake. In 1975 Babine Forest Products became a reality.
In 1976, after graduating from high school I had the pleasure of sweeping the floors in the sawmill and planer mill,” he said, to applause from the community.
“Babine Forest Products is the heart and soul of the community. We lit a candle of hope for the mill the other day and I hope the dream of the late George Brown does not go out. We owe it to the two workers that gave the ultimate sacrifice and the 19 workers that are injured, so that they don’t have another dark day … that there is only light before them.”
Chief Adam also said that Hampton Affiliates owe it to the workers that lost their lives and those that were injured, to rebuild.
“The employees have no income. If people are going to drag their feet …. I’ll make it happen. Some people have spent 40 years of their lives working at this mill. You can wait for the insurance company to find out what happened, but if you sat up at the Margaret Patrick Memorial Hall and listened to the workers …. they know what happened.”
Local, Melvin Joseph said, “I don’t want Burns Lake to become a ghost town … Steve [Zika] send this message to your people in Oregon, we need to rebuild the mill.”
Zika said, “The message has been received loud and clear. I will take that message back and we will do our very best, that’s what I can promise you.”
Rustad said the province is currently putting together a task force to assess what is needed in Burns Lake, then with the information gathered, they will report back to the government. “I can’t commit anything in terms of a dollar amount,” he said.
Mill employee Sam Tom said to Zika, “Ten hour shifts do not work, we have no time for our families and it doesn’t work for maintenance.”
Ronnie West said to Zika that he worked at Babine Forest Products for 30 years. He said employees were unable to address any issues with Babine management as they were just pushed aside.
“This accident was preventable …. if only they had have spoken to about our concerns, we wouldn’t be standing here right now, people wouldn’t have died or be injured. Our lives have forever changed because of greed. That’s all it was. The bottom line was dollars …. I just want you to know that.”
Zika said he had been hearing a lot of similar comments from mill employees over the past few days. “We tried to improve communications over the last two and a half years … I guess it has not worked. We will continue to try and improve communications to all of our employees.”
Jeff Dolan from Work Safe BC said their investigation has begun and will likely continue for months to come. “The investigation is a large scale collaborative effort and we are only in the early stages which is focussed on information and evidence gathering. We are analyzing all the information, so I am not in a position to comment on any timelines, but the length of time would be best measured in months,” he said.
Dolan said he understands the community wants answers about what happened and he said he and other investigators are working towards answering this question.
“This is now a fatal and serious injury investigation and we will be looking at the history [of incidents at the mill] no matter how remote.”
Melvin Joseph said, “Last Wednesday it was 40 below in Burns Lake and minus 46 degrees [Celsius] at the mill. I know because we have a [temperature] gauge at the mill. The mill should be shut down in anything under minus 35 … this is what used to happen. But we were still running in minus 46. We had no water, the pipes were frozen. On Thursday night the mill flooded and the toilets were shut off. The forklifts were frozen. On Friday again, the pipes froze. We had no water and no heat and they let it run. I just want you to know how high the roof [of the sawmill] went up. It went up over the burner and came back down and collapsed. Some men were blown right out onto the parking lot.”
Dolan said, “It sounds like you are someone we need to speak to. Information like this has caused our witness list to grow.”
Staff Sergeant Grant MacDonald said the RCMP will be speaking to all employees working the night shift on Jan. 20, 2012, as well as all employees working the day shift on that same day. “This information is helping to advance the investigation and we are committed to determine if there is any criminal activity involved or not. Information will continue to come in over the following days, weeks and months and we will bring this information to the families,” he said.
“We had two people unaccounted for and two sets of remains found. The identity of the two [sets of remains] is yet to be determined. Safety is paramount and it is going to take some time.”
Representatives from the B.C. Coroners Service said to community members that it could take up to six months to confirm the identity of the victims. They said they are still working on the initial recovery of the remains, but said they have located a general area of the mill that they will be working in.
Mill worker Carla Holland said, “I enjoyed my job. It is a great job with great people …. I just wanted you to know that.”
Several employees still remain in hospital’s in B.C. and Alberta, two remain in critical condition.