The Eastway Tank explosion: what we know about the investigation so far

A month after the fatal Eastway Tank explosion, investigators say it could take some time to come to any conclusions about its cause.

“It will potentially take months,” said a spokesperson for the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal.

The January 13 explosion and fire at Eastway Tank Pump & Meter Ltd, which builds and maintains tank trucks capable of carrying a variety of fuels, has become Ottawa’s worst industrial incident in decades.

He left six Eastway Tank employees dead: Rick Bastien, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, Kayla Ferguson and Russell McLellan died at the scene, while Matt Kearney succumbed to his injuries in hospital the following day.

A seventh worker was taken to hospital in Toronto and transferred to a rehabilitation center for people recovering from life-altering injuries, according to the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

“We don’t have a lot of incidents, even if you look across Canada, with this magnitude of injury in a single incident for workers,” said Cheryl A. Edwards, a former prosecutor with the Department of Labor of the United States. Ontario now defending businesses.

Clockwise from top left: Matt Kearney, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, Rick Bastien, Russell McLellan and Kayla Ferguson were killed by an explosion and fire on January 13, 2022 at Eastway Tank, Pump and Meter Ltd., a manufacturer of tank trucks in south Ottawa. (Pictures sent)

Parallel surveys

While the Office of the Fire Marshal is focusing on the origins, cause and circumstances of the fire, a group of other agencies have conducted parallel investigations, including the Ottawa Police Service (OPS), the Ministry Provincial Department of the Environment and the Office of the Chief Coroner.

It would be “some time” before the OPS could comment on the case or “draw any further investigative conclusions,” a force spokesperson said.

A spokesman for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, which has expertise in fuel safety and assists investigators, agreed, particularly given the “extensive damage” to the site.

This drone image showing the devastated Eastway Tank facility was captured by CBC a day after the explosion. (Radio Canada)

Police departments can gather evidence to support criminal code charges, a future coroner’s inquest or both, Edwards said.

Ottawa police declined to point either way, citing the integrity of the investigation.

The coroner’s office, which can make recommendations on how to prevent similar future deaths, said it has spoken to the families of the dead and their names have been released.

While the blast may be subject to a coroner’s discretionary inquest, it would only occur after all inquests and legal action were completed, a spokesperson said.

Workplace policies, training under review

The Ontario Ministry of Labour, which inspects workplaces for safety issues and reviews all workplace fatalities, has also launched its own investigation, which includes a review of Eastway’s workplace policies. Tank and employee training.

“Our first priority is to identify violations of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and its regulations, issue compliance orders and prevent further accidents,” a spokesperson said. .

By law, the department must lay charges against a business within a year of an incident, unless inspectors become aware of other issues later – which “would be extremely rare”, Edwards said.

Typically, police departments lay charges much faster than the department, she added.

Police Chief Peter Sloly said every available officer was being used to respond to the occupancy of two weeks and more of downtown Ottawa by people protesting COVID-19 public health mandates.

When asked if this effort had delayed or affected the Eastway Tank investigation in any way, a police spokesperson said that some “investigative resources” were focused on the protests and that ” the impact on other ongoing investigations cannot be qualified at this time.”

A former Eastway Tank employee provided this photo offering insight into the company’s facilities. (submitted to CBC)

Safety issue reported following an explosion

Since initiating its investigation, the Department of Labor has issued one order and three demands to Eastway Tank.

Although an order means that the department has determined that a company has breached health and safety laws – requiring the company to fix the problem or potentially stop work – it is not necessarily a prelude to charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Edwards said.

The ministry website outlines a number of potential business requirements. They include everything from not disturbing a workplace to allow for an examination to hiring an expert to test the equipment.

As of Thursday, Eastway Tank had complied with the order and one of three requirements, according to the ministry.

The department did not comment further, but said Eastway Tank continues to cooperate with their investigation.

CBC News has reached out to Eastway Tank for comment, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Some companies might just need more time to do what they’re asked to do, Edwards noted.

No complaints since 2018

The Ministry of Labor previously confirmed four orders were issued to Eastway Tank after a June 2017 inspection found issues with exhaust venting, welding safety and training, and exposure to hazardous chemicals.

The on-site visit was carried out in response to an occupational health and safety complaint. All 2017 orders were quickly fulfilled.

The department returned to Eastway Tank in September 2018 after a public complaint about workers not wearing personal protective equipment, but found the company to be in compliance.

Since then, there have been no safety complaints from current or former employees or the public about Eastway Tank, which former workers say was not unionized.

“We know complaints are less likely to come from non-unionized workplaces,” said Steven Bittle, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

“Non-unionized workers are reluctant to report because they fear losing their jobs or may not be informed of some of their safe work rights.”

29 field visits in 17 years

CBC News asked the ministry for information on Eastway Tank’s inspections and orders before 2017, and which of the inspections were proactive versus those based on complaints.

The ministry declined to say what safety issues, if any, were uncovered at Eastway Tank from 2004 to 2016, citing the ongoing investigation.

But the ministry said it visited the company 29 times from July 2004 – early information on the period was readily available – to January 2022.

Almost three-quarters of these inspections, 21, were proactive, with the rest being reactive, including follow-ups.

By comparison, one-third of the 33,647 field visits made by inspectors across Ontario last year were proactive, the ministry said.

The ministry has “no set target for the number of times a workplace can be visited”, a spokesperson said.

Cheryl A. Edwards is a former prosecutor for the Ontario Ministry of Labour. She says workplace explosions like the one that happened at Eastway Tank are rare. (Radio Canada)

Edwards said she had heard inspectors say in court and at coroner’s inquests that there was not much they could do in a day.

“They can’t necessarily visit every business in their jurisdiction. And so some businesses don’t get any proactive inspections at all,” she said.

“The Dead Can’t Speak”

Some former employees have alleged a history of safety violations at Eastway Tank before the January 13 explosion.

The allegations include fires, improper storage of flammable chemicals and “hot” trucks – tankers that still contained fuel or flammable residue – exposed to welding sparks and other activity at the facilities of Merivale Road Company.

“It was a very dangerous place,” said a former employee, who worked there for several years in the 1990s. CBC agreed not to name him because he fears reprisals.

“I need to talk because the dead can’t talk.”

Photos of Etienne Mabiala, pictured, and other blast victims surround the sign near the Eastway Tank entrance at 1995 Merivale Road. (Guy Quenneville/Radio-Canada)

The former employee said he witnessed hot trucks inside the shop, workers smoking inside tanks, fires in garbage cans and five-gallon fuel canisters left open in the boiler room .

The worker said he was concerned about underground tanks which he said were used to store fuel drained from trucks.

“The environment needs to inspect every square inch of this property,” he said.

The Department of the Environment, meanwhile, said it took former employees’ concerns about historic practices “very seriously”.

“A review of these concerns is being incorporated into the ministry’s ongoing site assessment,” a spokesperson said.

The ministry added that it had sampled an intact well on the Eastway Tank property, and that the water “directly below the site remains suitable as drinking water”.

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