Sarnia’s Veolia Environmental Services, manager Anthony Lavoratore acquitted of criminal negligence charges in fatal 2014 work explosion

Patrick Ducharme
Patrick Ducharme

Sarnia’s Veolia Environmental Services, manager Anthony Lavoratore acquitted of criminal negligence charges in fatal 2014 work explosion

A Sarnia business and one of its managers have been acquitted of criminal negligence charges in a 2014 workplace explosion that killed one worker and hurt five others.

Friday, Justice Deborah Austin ruled there wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt to hold Veolia Environmental Services or a manager, Anthony Lavoratore, guilty – though she stated the company didn’t provide a safe work environment.

The Oct. 25, 2014 blast killed employee Jason Miller, 37 and caused life-altering psychological and physical injuries to five others, said Austin. The court ruling Friday left his mother in tears.

“A lot of people won’t be happy,” Miller’s father, Doug, said following the verdict. “All these people hurt, and my son died.”

Sarnia and District Labour Council president Jason McMichael said Friday the decision renews the council’s determination to advocate for tougher legislation regarding worker safety.

“If you kill a worker, you go to jail,” said McMichael citing the Ontario Federation of Labour’s position.

In her decision Austin said there were mistakes, errors and omissions attributable to the defendants that clearly constitute negligence but it was not proven to the high degree required for criminal negligence.

The trial began last January and evidence had been presented during many days spread over the past year.

Company workers were spraying melted aluminum wire on pipes as an anti-corrosion treatment. Combustible aluminum dust was ignited by a fireball rolling into the shop from a dust collector parked outside.

A video recording of the fireball, captured by a surveillance camera at an adjacent building, was played during the trial.

A worker had testified the amount of dust in the air made it impossible to see from one end of the shop to the other.

The dust is combustible but safety data for the wire being used cited no explosive hazard.

A risk assessment done by Veolia identified the need to clean equipment regularly and remove dust. Cleaning was done as time permitted rather than in a regular routine fashion and this haphazard approach did not correlate to the Veolia’s in-house recommendations, said Austin.

The dust in the collector could have been ignited by a hot particle sucked from the shop, static electricity inside the collector or friction created by an auger moving dust through the collector, testified James Bennett, a technical expert from the Office of the Fire Marshal.

Bennett’s evidence made it clear more could or should have been done to ensure the dust collector could be used safely, said Austin.

A week before the blast, electrical engineer Thomas Collins testified that he told Lavoratore the shop could “grenade” if combustible dust was ignited. He had seen the dust on electrical equipment.

His comments included the assertion the dust collector was not doing the job and a cleanup needed to start, Collins testified.

There was no evidence during a meeting a week before the explosion that the spraying work should be stopped. The meeting was between Veolia representatives and an engineering company hired to deal with ventilation concerns.

Evidence does not substantiate that an explicit dire warning to stop was delivered to Veolia, said Austin.

Testimony from people at the meeting was that Lavoratore took the cleaning advice seriously, said Austin.

Defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme said at the beginning of the trial reasonable steps were taken by the company and there was no marked departure from reasonable standards of care. Ducharme said every Veolia employee was empowered to stop work due to a safety concern.

There were no steps taken to stop the work on the day of the explosion but no fault, blame or responsibility is assigned to the workers for failing to stop the work, said Austin.

The evidence demonstrated they lacked a reasonable level of training or knowledge about the risks associated with aluminum dust, said Austin.

Doug Miller said outside the courtroom workers did not know how dangerous it was and that is the important thing.

Miller, a former Chemical Valley worker, said the valley’s safety record comes from workers being told every morning before they start work of all the dangers present but that did not happen for Veolia workers.

Charges laid by Ontario’s labour and environment ministries against Veolia related to the same incident are still before the courts.