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Lakeland Mills to be rebuilt
The Sinclar Group, owner of Lakeland Mills, has announced that they will rebuild their mill in Prince George, B.C. and have it operating in 2014; a fire and explosion destroyed the mill in 2012.
By Jim Stirling
There is to be a new Lakeland sawmill operating in Prince George in 2014.
“As a company, we believe in this community,” declared Greg Stewart, president of the Sinclar Group, the owner of Lakeland Mills, on announcing the decision to rebuild. “Three generations of owners and employees have lived and worked here for 50 years. So this decision is as much about our belief in family and community as it is a good business decision. And it is a good business decision,”
Stewart first informed a group of Lakeland employees about the decision to rebuild a new stud lumber mill at the company’s location in Prince George in central British Columbia before making the announcement official at a press conference.
Lakeland’s world and that of its employees was violently shattered in the evening of April 23, 2012 when an explosion and subsequent fire ripped through the sawmill, destroying it.
Two sawmill workers lost their lives that night, 22 were injured and all involved were scarred by the event. Stewart described it “as the worst day in Lakeland Mills’ history. It began a year of challenge and sorrow for us all.”
Three months earlier, a similar explosion and fire had destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill near Burns Lake, B.C. Two of that mill’s workers were also killed, 20 injured and the blast pulled the rug out from beneath the village of Burns Lake’s economy.
The causes of the sawmill explosions and fires have been under intense scrutiny and analysis ever since by the province’s regulatory agencies. Safety and prevention procedures and requirements, especially in areas subject to accumulations of dry sawdust in mills, have been subsequently mandated to all the province’s wood processing plants. Individual mills have conducted their own internal audits and implemented changes, and the province’s largest forest companies adopted a proactive leadership role in researching and developing a dust control audit standard.
In December 2012, Hampton Affiliates, owners of the Babine Lake sawmill announced their plans to rebuild a scaled-down version of their mill. Construction is expected this summer at the sawmill site east of Burns Lake.
Available wood fibre to sustain a new mill was a major consideration for Hampton. Not so for Sinclar with Lakeland. The mill has an AAC of 250,000 cubic metres. But it also has access to the 505,000 cubic metres/year assigned to its Winton Global Mill division. That mill has permanently closed, a victim of the U.S. lumber market crash and the recession.
Details of the new Lakeland mill have not been revealed apart from the fact that it will continue as a stud mill and be smaller than its predecessor. It will employ about 100 people on a two-shift basis compared with about 160 in the last processing operation. However, the new mill will possess the ability to cut metric size lumber.
“Introducing this flexibility will allow Lakeland to diversify its markets,” said Stewart. “The mill will be integrated with the existing planer mill, which is still operational, and the energy system Lakeland operates in partnership with the City of Prince George.
“It will incorporate the most advanced safety protocols available in all areas of its operations to ensure a safe work environment.”
Lakeland has a strong customer base for its lumber products in Japan and the new ability to produce wood in metric sizes will aid expansion into China.
Uncertainties and concerns linger in the aftermath of the explosions and fires for both Babine and Lakeland. Prime among those are the official determinations of the causes and the implications they may have. The principal regulatory agencies involved in the sawmill cases are WorkSafeBC; the BC Safety Authority; the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the Fire Investigation and Prevention Initiative.
Both WorkSafeBC and the BC Safety Authority have conducted extensive reviews of the Babine and Lakeland files. The WorkSafeBC report has been turned over to the provincial Crown Counsel for examination. After that process—and there’s no indication of how long that might take—Crown will decide what if any further action to pursue. Regardless of the Crown’s conclusion and recommendations, WorkSafeBC retains the right to pursue the matter under its own jurisdiction with both Babine and Lakeland.
The unresolved situation is of obvious concern to the ownership of both operations. The insurance ramifications of the explosions and fires is the elephant in the room for both forest companies. “We made the decision to rebuild despite any decisions on final insurance settlement,” said Sinclar’s Stewart. The ownership group at Hampton Affiliates earlier took the same course of action with the Babine mill.
Whatever the insurance ramifications turn out to be for both Babine and Lakeland specifically, there’s likely to be downstream insurance premium repercussions throughout the solid wood manufacturing sector.
Sawdust accumulations have been widely identified as at least a contributing factor to the Babine and Lakeland incidents. The material has a known propensity to be combustible under favorable conditions.
But the incident investigation agencies, individual mills and wood processing plants throughout B.C. have been looking at their operations for risk reduction strategies. Companies have carried out changes in their mills to reduce the risk of fire or other contributing factors to the kind of accidents that occurred at Babine and Lakeland, said Ken Higginbotham. The changes involved have varied depending on the type of technology in the mills. Higginbotham is project manager for the group comprising the 10 largest forest companies in B.C. which developed the voluntary dust control audit standard for sawmills. “One thing I do know is (companies) continue to work on making the work environment overall as safe as they can,” he added.
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