Three dead at BC mushroom farm
An industrial accident at a mushroom farm in British Columbia's Langley Township has left three people dead and two others in serious condition.
Dozens of firefighters and three air ambulances were called to the farm after several people working on the site inadvertently released an unknown toxic chemical and were overcome by noxious, unidentified fumes.
Family members knelt and prayed outside the farm in Langley, about 50 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, after the incident, which happened shortly after 5 p.m. local time.
B.C. Ambulance Service evacuated three people to hospital. Two were in critical condition and they were brought to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, while the other victim was brought to Langley Hospital in stable condition.
One other victim was still being attending at scene by ambulance crews.
The large acreage is home to two mushroom farms, called Farmers Fresh Mushrooms Inc. and HV Trong Ltd. Mushroom Farm.
The matter is being investigated by WorkSafeBC.
The men who died were working for A1 Compost, according to the farm's accountant Kim Li.
Li confirmed some of the farm's 100 workers lived on the property, which was bought by the Truongs in 2003.
"I feel very bad; I feel sick too," Li said.
Donna Freeman, of WorkSafeBC, said men were working at a three-metre-deep outdoor containment area mixing gypsum, chicken manure and water into compost when a pipe burst in a nearby pumphouse.
The compost leaked out of the pipe, causing a worker to gag inside the pumphouse. When others went in to help, they were overcome.
Freeman said preliminary evidence suggests the workers were found in an "oxygen deficient area," meaning the fumes forced breathable air out of the area.
One worker was found outside the pumphouse, four were found inside and a sixth was found by the containment area.
One of the workers, Mariwin Aziz, said he was working in another warehouse when he heard the commotion. His friend tried to help the men but became sick after inhaling the toxic gas.
"I was working inside and heard these guys needed help in the other building," Aziz said. "My friend went in to help, but the gas got him."
The men were wearing safety masks, Aziz said, but they were struck down by the gas. "They couldn't see anything or get out," he said.
By nightfall Friday, the odour over the farm had turned into a stench of a mixture of manure, rotten eggs and gas.
Yellow police tape surrounded the two main buildings on the site, blocking the alley to the composting shed about 200 metres at the back. Family members were occasionally escorted into the shed, only to come out weeping before driving off the property. Others knelt and prayed.
Geraldine Auston, executive director of the Mushroom Industry Development Council, said this is the first time she has heard of such a tragedy in the mushroom industry in the past three years.
"We're trying to get a better understanding of what happened over there; it's been a very tragic evening," she said. "Something has gone incredibly and tragically wrong down at this farm."
The deaths have prompted B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair call for a public inquiry into deaths in the agriculture industry.
He noted many farms hire underpaid migrant workers who don't speak much English.
"It just keeps happening," he said. "There's no need to risk your life to make mushrooms. How long does this have to happen before we can fix it?"
Auston said most mushroom farms who often hire new immigrants, but they are required to train them for a specific duty.
She said the farm has often been visited by bylaw officers because of complaints by neighbours about the stench. The noxious gas, however, she said, does not pose a threat to residents.
The farm's owners declined to comment Friday night, but the company said on its website that it has been serving the fresh mushroom market since 1999, with more than $20 million in sales annually.
Late Friday night, the farm was still making deliveries, taking pallets of mushrooms into Chinatown.
An industry report in 2006 estimated that mushroom production in British Columbia tripled from about 20 million lbs. in 1993 to 60 million lbs. in 2005.
The mushroom farms are situated at 23700-block 16th Avenue.