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Canadian sawmill shuts down as a precaution after deadly explosions

27 April 2012

The Pope & Talbot sawmill in Fort St. James, British Columbia, has closed temporarily to clean up sawdust after two recent explosions at other sawmills, according to John Allen, president and CEO of the Council of Forest Industries (COFI). 

The Pope & Talbot sawmill in Fort St. James, British Columbia, has closed temporarily to clean up sawdust
The Pope & Talbot sawmill in Fort St. James, British Columbia, has closed temporarily to clean up sawdust

Quoted by the Vancouver Sun, Allen said: "Dust removal is now a high priority in mills."  

He added there was no proof that the highly flammable dust was responsible for either explosion, but it was one common denominator.

He was speaking outside a meeting of provincial government, WorkSafeBC, industry and union leaders in response to the recent sawmill explosions in Prince George and Burns Lake, in which four workers were killed and 41 injured.

BC Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said the group representatives have agreed to form a working group to immediately address worker safety in sawmills.

WorkSafe BC has notified British Columbia’s 300-odd sawmills they have fewer than two weeks to conduct a thorough inspection and implement an effective combustible dust control problem. Follow-up inspections will be conducted by May 9 to evaluate whether there is sufficient compliance.

"The reason for sending out the directive order is directly linked to the second catastrophic explosion in Prince George," said Roberta Ellis, senior vice president of corporate services with WorkSafe BC.

Large expanses of British Columbia's pine and spruce forests have been killed by bark beetle infestations
Large expanses of British Columbia's pine and spruce forests have been killed by bark beetle infestations

"We've heard from workers, we've heard from unions, we've heard from employers. There's a high level of nervousness and concern."

According to the Globe and Mail, a WorkSafeBC inspector discussed the  “accumulations of piles of wood dust” in various parts of the Prince George facility with staff in February, but did not issue any corrective orders. The sawmill had a vacuuming system to collect dust in the air.

The report also included a reference to a February fire at the plant’s bag house. A worker had to “quickly exit” the area of the fire, but was uninjured.

Greg Stewart, president of the Prince George sawmill owner, Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd., said the company had cleaned away debris after the inspection, reviewed its procedures, and increased its clean-up crew to five from three workers, characterising those actions as “a significant response.”

Three years earlier, in a report dated February 3, 2009, WorkSafeBC specifically warned of the danger of dry wood killed by pine beetles, and noted an absence of monitoring exposure of wood dust in processing saws and chipping heads in the plant. 

Dust and frass at the foot of an affected tree
Dust and frass at the foot of an affected tree

As the industry, unions and the government have been in talks on a response to this week’s deadly explosion in Prince George, there has been some discussion about the challenges of processing wood killed by pine beetles because that wood is exceptionally dry.

COFI CEO John Allen told reporters on April 25 that the industry was inevitably relying on older beetle wood. He said it was not practical to reduce the consumption of such wood.

“What we’re going to do is take steps to mitigate against any issues from sawmilling beetle wood, including dust,” he said following the meeting with the BC Labour Minister, WorkSafeBC, companies and unions.

He also called for a public dialogue on how to address looming timber supply issues in mountain pine beetle hit areas.  In a Vancouver Sun interview, Allan noted that there was not much time left and said the Canadian government needed to get ahead of the issue.

British Columbia’s forests are the scene of what scientists consider to be the worst bark beetle epidemic ever.

The Pope & Talbot sawmill in Fort St. James, British Columbia, has closed temporarily to clean up sawdust
The Pope & Talbot sawmill in Fort St. James, British Columbia, has closed temporarily to clean up sawdust

The US Government’s FireScience Digest says mountain pine beetles and spruce beetles have attacked lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce over millions of hectares throughout the subalpine zones of the Rockies and have killed between 60 and 80 percent of the mature trees in some places. 

The Digest says what is particularly concerning about this outbreak is that the beetles are pushing into new territories such as northern British Columbia, on the extreme edge of the mountain pine beetle’s historical range. The beetles have also crossed the spine of the northern Rockies, apparently for the first time, and are now resident in Alberta jack pine forests. They could well spread into other tree species that did not co-evolve with these beetle species and consequently have no defences against it.

Bark beetles have also spread upslope into alpine forests of whitebark and bristlecone pines, where cold temperatures have historically kept them out. 

The main factor in these new dynamics is a warming climate, the Digest says. Earlier snowmelt, a longer growing season, and milder winters favour an environment that drives beetles to reproduce more often in a season and allows more larvae to survive the winter.


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