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Workers raised concerns about Entwistle wood-pellet plant before explosion

A wood-pellet plant in Entwistle where three people were injured in an explosion on Monday reported a fire six weeks ago and was recently inspected twice by the province after workers lodged complaints.

OHS issued work order related to equipment safety after employees complained in December, January.

Jessi Margaret Balsillie took this photo of the Pinnacle plant near Entwistle shortly after an explosion rocked her house on February 11, 2019. (Jessi Margaret Balsillie)

A wood-pellet plant in Entwistle where three people were injured in an explosion on Monday reported a fire six weeks ago and was recently inspected twice by the province after workers lodged complaints.

A fire at the Pinnacle Renewable Energy plant was reported to Occupational Health and Safety on Jan. 2. No one was injured.

OHS inspected the plant in December and again in January after workers complained. Those inspections resulted in an order being placed on the worksite regarding equipment safety.

Monday's explosion at the plant  was so forceful that nearby residents say it rocked their houses and knocked pictures off their walls.

Angela Ruiter was home with her children at her farm less than half a kilometre from the Pinnacle Renewable Energy plant when the explosion happened at around 2:20 p.m.

"We heard it and felt it," she said. "Like the house shook. I thought a moose ran into the side of our house, or a tree had fallen on it."

She went outside to look around and called her husband. Minutes later, neighbour Jessi Margaret Balsillie sent her a picture of flames coming from the roof of the plant.

Balsillie was also at home with her children at the time of the explosion. 

"We heard and felt this bang, so hard that I thought my windows were going to break, and pictures fell off some of my walls," she told CBC News.

We heard and felt this bang, so hard that I thought my windows were going to break, and pictures fell off some of my walls.- Jessi  Margaret  Balsillie

At first, she assumed a train tanker was on fire, because she lives close to the tracks. She called her husband.

"While on the phone with my husband ... I looked up to see the plant in flames and could hear the alarm sounding."

A 28-year-old man was airlifted in critical condition to an Edmonton hospital. EMS transported two other people to hospital in serious condition, Alberta Health Services said. The man who was seriously injured remains in hospital. 

Occupational Health and Safety is at the scene and is investigating, said spokesman Gurshan Dhillon. 

Operations at the plant have been suspended, Pinnacle said in a statement. The cause of the explosion is not yet known.

According to Pinnacle's website, the company is the third largest wood pellet producer in the world. The pellets are used as fuel to burn in stoves or to generate electricity at power plants . 

The company has eight production facilities in Western Canada and one in Alabama.

The Entwistle plant started operating last year and created 70 jobs in the area, Parkland County mayor Rob Shaigec said.

Explosions at Pinnacle plants have happened before. In October 2014, an explosion at the company's plant near Burns Lake, B.C., sent three people to hospital. The fire broke out in one of the drying units in the plant, which is used to dry wood, including chips and sawdust, before turning them into pellets.

WorkSafe B.C. investigated and found the explosion was caused when an accumulation of flammable gases in a dryer was exposed to high temperatures and oxygen.

It said several of the company's procedures were not followed before the explosion.

Pinnacle was fined $56,000 by WorkSafe B.C. as a result of the explosion.

Aaron Dale Hofmann took this video of the fire after an explosion at a wood pellet plant in Entwistle, Alta. on Monday. 0:30

Angela Ruiter said she would not have bought her farm near Entwistle five years ago had she known the Pinnacle plant would be built so close by.

Residents immediately raised concerns about the plant, which is half a kilometre to the east from the Entwistle elementary school and a community church she said.

Her biggest concern was the noise. A loud scraping sound kept her family up at night and shook the windows of her house, she said.

The plant has value in the community because of the employment opportunities it provides, she said.

But she thinks residents should have been consulted more before it was built.

"Why they would put that plant smack dab in the middle of residential and agricultural communities is a shock to me," Ruiter said.

"Is the risk of having the plant so close to our town and where we're all living worth the employment? I don't know."

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