The coroner’s inquest into the April 23, 2012 explosion and fire that killed two men and injured 22 others has taken some unexpected turns over the past few days.
When the inquest, looking into the deaths of Alan Little and Glenn Roche, adjourned on Friday, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe ruled that an investigation into the explosion conducted by legal counsel for Lakeland Mills was relevant to the inquest. However, she also ruled that the information was subject solicitor/client privilege and had given Lakeland the weekend to determine whether it would waive that privilege in order for it to be presented at the inquest.
Monday morning, however, she ruled that the information was not privileged and counsel for all sides will debate that issue later today.
However, also on Friday, inquest counsel John Orr referred to the suggestion that Lakeland withhold the evidence as “unconscionable.” On Monday Orr apologized for using the term.
However, that has angered Lakeland Mills, which issued a statement shortly after lunch Monday.
“Mr. Orr has taken a prosecutorial stance to this inquest, including describing witness testimony in open court as ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘unbelievable,’ and questioning the integrity of other counsel and of our company,” said Lakeland statement.
“Lakeland Mills has been owned and run by two local families in this community for over 50 years. The Stewarts and Andersens have proven their integrity, honesty and commitment to this community and to have it questioned by an agent of the state who is supposed to be an impartial third party is unacceptable.
“Lakeland Mills remains committed to openness and transparency of the process, as it has been from the day this tragedy occurred. We believe it is important to discover what happened so we can ensure nothing like this happens again. We don’t believe the current state of the information in the CASE Forensics file will change the outcome of the inquest.
“That said, Lakeland Mills has agreed to share any information that the coroner considers relevant.”
That came too late for counsel for the United Steelworkers, which withdrew from the inquest Monday morning, stating the union has lost confidence that the inquest will answer the many outstanding questions that remain and reiterated calls for a public inquiry into the Lakeland Mills and Babine Forest Products mill explosions.
“Over the past week, the inquest has heard how WorkSafeBC’s failure to carry out its mandate to ensure the health and safety of workers resulted in a complete mishandling of sawmill safety both before and after the explosion,” said USW District 3 Director Stephen Hunt in a statement issued Monday afternoon. “Despite this tragic failure to do its job, the agency is not being held accountable.”
Hunt added called the investigations by WorkSafeBC, the RCMP and B.C. Safety Authority “flawed.”
“It is now clear that the inquest is not going to adequately answer any of the questions that demand to be answered. The employer’s withholding of crucial evidence would have made a difference as to how the USW conducted its case and we will not participate in an exercise that does such a disservice to the families who lost loved ones and to the larger community,” said Hunt.