More and more logging companies, including at least one operating in the Chilliwack area, are getting sloppy when it comes to keeping forest service roads and bridges safe for workers and the public, according to two reports released by the Forest Practices Board (FPB) last week.
Since 2005, more than half the problems revealed in the independent watchdog's audits of B.C. timber companies were related to roads and bridges, and five times as many problems with bridges and roads were detected in 2010 and 2011 as in the previous five years combined.
"The board is concerned that non-compliance has increased significantly over the past few years," FPB board chair Al Gorley said in a press release. "Poorly constructed or maintained roads and bridges create risks to workers, the public and the environment,"
And those risks aren't far from home, according to a second FPB report on 606546 B.C. Ltd., a company that owns Tamihi Logging, which operates in the Chilliwack Forest district.
A random Forest Practices Board audit found the company to be in "significant non-compliance" in the areas of road construction, bridge construction and bridge maintenance.
"To have an audit where there's three significant findings is fairly rare," FPB director of audits Chris Mosher told the Times.
He said his organization completes about 10 or 11 audits a year, and usually only about one or two turn up significant problems.
In exchange for the right to harvest timber from Crown land, logging companies have to follow rules designed to protect the environment and public safety. But the 606546 B.C. Ltd. audit showed the company was responsible for three sections of poorly constructed road, two bridges built without a design or as-built drawing, and the use of an unsafe bridge.
In September 2011, the report states, the company was told by the Chilliwack Forest District manager not to use one of the roads in question until a bridge on it had been checked by a ministry engineer.
That engineer eventually assigned the bridge a zero-tonne load rating because of holes in the deck, but FPB's audit found the company had ignored the district manager and used the bridge to move heavy equipment before the engineer's assessment
"They shouldn't have done that, but I think a lot of it is they're trying to keep production up," Mosher said. "Perhaps they didn't want to wait because sometimes you don't know when the regional engineer's going to get there, so they might have felt they were in a hurry-up mode and thought it was safe enough."
But the idea that logging companies are cutting corners in a way that could compromise worker safety concerns Mangit Sidhu, president of United Steelworkers Local 2009, the union that represents 606546 B.C. Ltd. workers.
"If it involves safety of workers, whether they're union or non-union, that are working in the woods-which is a very dangerous place to work in anyways-that is absolutely a concern," he said.
Tamihi manager Ted Holtby, however, said the bridge the company was still under certification from an earlier inspection.
"Nothing happened. There was no danger. It couldn't have collapsed, that's for sure," he told the Times.
That being said, the company did not direct its workers to use the bridge, he said.
"The contractor that we employ jumped the gun and wanted to get to work and wasn't aware that this letter [directing the company not to use the bridge] had come out," he said. "We're not happy about it, but it happened."
Besides the potential risks to forestry workers, poorly maintained logging roads and bridges are a problem recreational users, like hunters, fishers, hikers, snowmobilers and ATVers as well.
The two biggest problems, according to the Chilliwack Outdoor Club's Gary Baker are road wash-out roads near culverts and drainage trenches.
"The problem is they build them badly and they wash out and you get a giant hole, and you normally can't get by them unless you want to tear your vehicle apart," he said.
Planning backwoods excursions that involve logging roads are hit and miss as a result, he said.
"Unless you spend hours checking them out, you never know," he said. "Some of them we know where we're going to get stopped and we plan to walk accordingly. With others we go, and 'Gee whiz, I guess we have to go to plan B; we can't drive any farther.'"