The operators of a Fraser Valley mushroom farm where three men died in a tragic industrial accident entered surprise guilty pleas Friday to charges brought under B.C. labour laws.

On Sept. 5, 2008, five Vietnamese-Canadian workers at the farm and composting plant in Langley, B.C., were overcome by toxic fumes in a shed. Ut Tran, Jimmy Chan and Ham Pham died, while one of their co-workers was left unable to speak or hear and another remains in a coma.

A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. and H.V. Truong Ltd., along with company officials Ha Qua Truong, Van Thi Truong and Thinh Huu Doan, admitted to failing to ensure the health and safety regulations under the Workers Compensation Act. Charges against Vy Tri Truong were stayed.

Outside the courthouse, the 15-year-old daughter of Michael Phan, who remains in a coma in hospital, fought back tears as she spoke of the difficult time her family has faced since the incident.

“I don’t really know what to say because think about it in the situation where you’ve lost your husband or your father or your own son. I don’t know how you would react to this, but for me it’s been pretty hard. I’ve been holding up for three years and I haven’t had a father figure,” Tracey Phan said outside the court, breaking down.

Investigators found that a pipe carrying a compost mixture broke, releasing the toxic gas.

A trio of fellow workers rushed to the aid of two men who initially succumbed to the fumes in the shed. One of those would-be rescuers also died, and the remaining two suffered neurological damage.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said the men’s families were already angry that no criminal charges were laid and Friday’s guilty pleas to violating labour laws will only make them angrier.

“We found out no more about what happened and now they’re talking about small fines for the employers? Completely outrageous under the circumstances,” he said.

There should be a coroner’s inquest, Sinclair said, because the WorkSafeBC report has never been released and there remain many questions about how the farm was operated and why it hadn’t been inspected.

“Open up the door on this industry, what happens on these farms, and let everybody have a look and see what we think,” he said.

Sinclair said criminal charges should be brought against employers in cases of negligence.

“The message to employers is nothing will happen, even if you screw it up so badly that people die, and they lose their fathers and their wives.”

The incident renewed calls for changes to the province’s agriculture industry, where many workers are migrants from countries such as Mexico or Vietnam who have limited English skills.

Those changes include language training, a more rigorous inspection and enforcement system, improved training and revisions to employment rules to ensure farm workers are covered by the same standards and have the same rights as everyone else.

The deaths came 18 months after three farm workers were killed when a 15-passenger van carrying 17 workers flipped onto a concrete median on the Trans-Canada Highway near Abbotsford. A coroner’s jury ruled the death accidental, but made 18 recommendations, including ensuring farmworkers are better informed about their rights.

The companies and officials will be sentenced Sept. 16.

84 cases in 40 years

May 8, 2011

Criminal penalties under OSHA are also weak. While there were 346 criminal enforcement cases initiated under federal environmental laws and 239 defendants charged in FY 2010, only 84 cases related to worker deaths have been prosecuted since 1970.

Joe Biggio, ESI’s former Operations Manager and Executive Vice President, was sentenced to three years probation, a $15,000 fine, and community service, after having previously pled guilty to two counts of CWA criminal violations and one violation of the federal false statements statute, 18 U.S.C.  1001. Biggio’s community service requires him to lecture graduate students seeking degrees in business management regarding his case and criminal conviction. 

Mike Milem, former Operations Manager, was sentenced to six months home detention, three years probation, a $5,000 fine and community service, after he previously pled guilty to one criminal violation of the CWA. Similarly to Biggio, Milem’s community service requires him to lecture students in Indiana colleges regarding his case and criminal conviction.

Mark Snow, former Lab Manager of ESI, was sentenced to three years probation, a $5,000 fine and 8 hours of community service per month during the duration of probation, after he also pled guilty to one criminal CWA violation. 

In addition, all three defendants are prohibited from applying for any environmental license or employment in the environmental field without disclosing their felony convictions to any such licensing board or prospective employer. 

The investigation began after the Indiana Department of Environmental Management received complaints from several Indianapolis homeowners that thick, oily wastewater was flowing into their yards from sewer manholes after a heavy rainfall on February 11, 2009. ESI was required to have sufficient storage capacity to handle wastewater from this type of wet weather event, but it did not. In order to deal with the excess wastewater, Mr. Milem and Mr. Snow decided to directly discharge untreated oily wastewater into the Indianapolis sewer system by pumping wastewater through hoses that bypassed ESI’s treatment processes. As a result, the wastewater received no treatment, and was discharged into the sewer system leading to the City of Indianapolis’ wastewater treatment plant. The discharge continued for approximately eight hours and resulted in a discharge of approximately 300,000 gallons of untreated wastewater. In the hours after this discharge, the oily sludge-like waste emerged from several sewer manholes downstream of the ESI facility, contaminating residential properties. 

The subsequent investigation revealed that ESI had not been adequately treating the waste it took from customers for reclamation for a significant period of time, in part because major pieces of equipment in the treatment process, such as pumps, needed to be repaired or replaced, and because badly-needed storage space was not available at the facility. Investigators also determined that ESI had misrepresented to EPA and Indiana the storage capacity it had to handle such a rainfall event as the one that occurred on February 11, 2009.

Mr. Biggio, as the Executive Vice President of Operations, knew that ESI was hiding its noncompliance in several ways. Instead of reporting all of its wastewater samples to the city, as required by its permit, he “cherry picked” the data and only reported the “best” samples whose analytic results reflected lower concentrations of certain pollutants. Similarly, wastewater was collected after rainfalls, resulting in diluted samples that could be reported as “lower” pollution levels to the city. This practice of submitting false sampling results, along with making false statements to the authorities, attempted to disguise the fact that pollution discharge limits were being exceeded on a regular basis. The company’s Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plan stated it had millions of gallons more capacity than actually existed to handle spills and rain events. 

The case was investigated by EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. It was prosecuted by the Office of the United States Attorney, Southern District of Indiana.