By Alex Rinfret–A lawyer and a couple of current and former employees of Weyerhaeuser Co. were in provincial court in Masset last week to fight a charge that the company failed to maintain a road properly.
The charge stems from an incident in April 2003, when conservation officer James Hilgemann issued Weyerhaeuser – the largest logging company on the islands – a $345 ticket for the condition of a portion of the Queen Charlotte mainline known as 25.3 K. The site is approximately 50 kilometres from Juskatla, and close to the logging areas known as Ghost and Phantom.
Mr. Hilgemann said there was a large pothole in the road near the approach to a bridge. Wet conditions had left the road soft and sediment could have been washed into the nearby fish-bearing creek. He took several photographs, which were entered as exhibits in the case.
Former Weyerhaeuser supervisor Roger De Bucy, who now works for Olympic Forest Products on Vancouver Island, testified that if he had seen what was depicted in Mr. Hilgemann’s photographs, he would have taken action.
“I would have dealt with that for sure, it’s not normal practice to haul through something like that,” Mr. De Bucy said. He added that in his experience, Weyerhaeuser dealt promptly with incidents like this, unlike some other forest companies.
Mr. De Bucy did not have responsibility for that portion of the road, but had accepted the ticket on behalf of Weyerhaeuser when Mr. Hilgemann issued it a few days later because he was the only supervisor in the Juskatla office at the time.
The company did install sediment traps at the site two days after Mr. Hilgemann saw it, crown lawyer Claire Ducluzeau told the court. It is unclear how many logging trucks drove through the area before the traps were put in.
One issue explored at length in the case is the company’s decision to contract out much of the work done here on the islands. Under questioning from Ms Ducluzeau, Mr. De Bucy agreed that Weyerhaeuser has moved away from having its own employees and increasingly works with contractors instead. Unlike employees, contractors are paid according to how much wood gets to the sort. Ms Ducluzeau suggested this would make contractors less likely to report problems, because a shutdown would mean they wouldn’t be paid.
However, Mr. De Bucy disagreed, saying that the contractors could lose their contract with Weyerhaeuser if they do not follow the rules and regulations.
Weyerhaeuser lawyer Daniel Kiselbach argued that the company had a proper system in place to avoid and correct any incidents, with regular programs of road maintenance and employee training. In addition to Mr. De Bucy, Mr. Kiselbach also called on Weyerhaeuser supervisor Andre Noel to testify about the company’s road maintenance program.
The large pothole was a random event which did not occur because of lack of maintenance, Mr. Kiselbach said. There was no evidence of previous problems at this site, no evidence that the incident resulted in harm to fish habitat, and the company fixed the problem within two days, he said.
Mr. Kiselbach urged provincial court judge Agnes Krantz to dismiss the charge, saying the offence was so minor that it could be compared to someone being charged with assault after merely touching another
However, Judge Krantz questioned Mr. Kiselbach closely on his assertions about Weyerhaeuser’s training programs.
“Are you making an assumption that because people are trained in a certain way, they will act that way, in the corporate atmosphere?” she asked. “What I’ve got here is a situation where both of your witnesses said yes, that is a situation that should have been reported, and they didn’t get a report.”
Judge Krantz said it is clear Weyerhaeuser has a training program, but not so clear whether the program actually works. She said she would have liked to have heard evidence of occasions when truck drivers or supervisors called in problems, and the company fixed them.
“Weyerhaeuser is sitting there looking good, they’ve got this policy,” Judge Krantz said. “There’s a difference between having a policy at the top and making sure at the ground level it really works.”
In her closing arguments Ms Ducluzeau, the crown lawyer, said it was troubling that the company had not produced any workers who had been at the site the day Mr. Hilgemann reported the large pothole. In fact, the only reason the condition was reported at all was because Mr. Hilgemann flagged down a driver and got him to call it in, she said.
“We do not have the two supervisors who were there on the day in question, we do not have the grader operator, we do not have any of the truck drivers,” she said. The graders and truck drivers are contract employees who would not be paid if wood did not get hauled, she said. She suggested that Weyerhaeuser’s environmental standards and training programs may not be working as well as they should partly because of the move to contract employees instead of direct employees.
Contractors “are essentially shooting themselves in the foot by calling it in,” she said. “The training may have been there but there has to be more than just training if there’s a disincentive for contract employees to report anything.”
The wet spring conditions were not unusual or unforeseen and the company should have inspected the road more than once, Ms Ducluzeau said.
Judge Krantz said she was not ready to make a decision after the case wrapped up Friday afternoon (Aug. 20), but will make one this week.
The company is also facing a charge of dumping waste oil, stemming from an incident alleged to have occurred in December 2001. That case had to be delayed after one of the crown’s main witnesses, contractor Wayne Riepe, who lives off-island, failed to show up. A new date for the trial will be set this week.