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Investigation under way after gas leak at Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Mill

Unifor Local 1119’s president Don Rheaume says he was 'impressed' by how well procedure was followed during the May 12 incident that sent several people to the hospital as a precaution.
Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Mill is investigating what caused a leak of combined condensates on May 12, 2022.

An investigation into what caused a leak of combined condensates on May 12 at Howe Sound Pulp & Paper Mill (HSPP) is now under way. 

Last Thursday, several workers were taken to the hospital after combined condensates leaked past a valve and down a drain piper, Unifor Local 1119’s president Don Rheaume said. 

Rheaume, who was at the Port Mellon mill the day of the incident, told Coast Reporter the release was found by the operations group, who put on self-contained breathing apparatuses to find the cause right away.

“Quite frankly, I'm very impressed with how fast and professional our operations group and our crews reacted to this, in the first aid department as well as our emergency response teams,” Rheaume said. “Once the odour was detected a full mill evacuation was triggered… The investigation will show what happened later on. For me, that's the most important thing is that we didn't hesitate to get everyone out of the mill.” 

BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) confirmed six people had been transported to the hospital in stable condition. Rheaume said the condensates can cause nausea and an upset stomach.

“I've worked at the mill for over 40 years, and you never get used to a smell like that. Combined condensate is very, very stinky.” The workers who had been taken to the hospital were all able to return to work the next day, he said.

Everyone was evacuated into the marshalling areas for about two hours as a sweep was conducted. “It was a cold wet day, so they [the workers] were kind of cranky about standing out in the rain for two hours but it's not debatable. It's part of our emergency response plan that we put in place after 2017.” 

In October 2017, two HSPP employees were sent to hospital after exposure to a gas leak. WorkSafe issued an order to the company to bring in “suitably qualified occupational hygiene expertise to work with HSPP personnel to identify hazardous substances, assess exposure risks, conduct air sampling as necessary and determine appropriate exposure controls,” and HSPP confirmed they had adopted measures to reduce the risk of gas exposure on site, Coast Reporter reported at the time.

“From my perspective, our procedures were all followed,” Rheaume said of the May 12 incident. “The mill evacuation was paramount. The problem was found and isolated, very quickly. First aid followed their procedures,” which included providing oxygen.

“You never want to certainly downplay anything like this at all. But they were sent to the hospital as part of our protocol, because it's the right thing to do in this situation,” he said.

“It's always unsettling, and it's always scary, but we're thankful that nobody was seriously hurt.”

WorkSafeBC was notified of the incident shortly after 3 p.m. on May 12, a WorkSafeBC media relations person told Coast Reporter via email. The employer is required to complete an investigation within 30 days of the incident, in order to determine why the incident happened and what can be done to prevent similar situations in the future, WorkSafeBC’s rep said.

Just before 5 p.m. on May 12, HSPP released a statement on social media that “The mill stopped the leak this morning, is putting a solution in place to avoid recurrence, and is returning to normal operations.”