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Families of workers killed in Ottawa tanker plant explosion react to charges against company

Janet Ferguson says she didn’t like that her daughter worked at Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter — a place where she and five other employees were killed after an explosion almost a year ago.

On Jan. 13, 2022, Kayla Ferguson, Rick Bastien, Etienne Mabiala, Danny Beale, and Russell McLellan died at the Ottawa tanker manufacturer’s site on Merivale Road after a blast and fire. A sixth employee, Matt Kearney, succumbed to his injuries in hospital the next day.

Before her daughter’s death, Ferguson said it was scary to hear her talk about previous fires at the site.

When the company and its owner, Neil Greene, were charged earlier this week with several safety contraventions that allegedly occurred in the lead-up to the Jan. 13 explosion, Ferguson said she had a visceral reaction.

“My stomach just turned,” she said. 

Greene could not be reached for comment Friday. The allegations against him have not been proven.

A first court date is scheduled for Feb. 17.

Kayla Ferguson and mother Janet Ferguson
Janet Ferguson, right, said her daughter Kayla Ferguson, who died in the Eastway Tank explosion, was her best friend. (Janet Ferguson/Facebook)

Greene and his company each face three charges under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, including not taking reasonable precautions to protect workers. 

“Our thoughts are with the family and colleagues of the individuals who passed away,” the ministry said in an emailed statement. “As this matter is currently before the court, it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further.”

A major fire on Jan. 13, 2022 left the site of a Merivale Road business, Eastway Tank Pump and Meter Ltd., heavily damaged. The explosion killed six people.

Current penalties ‘not enough’: families 

If convicted, Eastway Tank would face a maximum fine of $1.5 million as a corporation and Greene would face a maximum fine of $100,000, jail time of up to 12 months, or both.

“I don’t think it’s enough,” Ferguson said of the penalties facing Greene as an individual. 

Louise Martel, who lost her partner Rick Bastien in the explosion, agreed.

“Twelve months is not enough for what we lost,” Martel said of a potential conviction. “They’re not coming back, so why should he be out there living his life?”

families of workers killed in ottawa tanker plant explosion react to charges against company 2
Louise Martel said she was planning to marry Rick Bastien in the summer of 2022, but he died earlier that year while working for Eastway. (Courtesy Louise Martel)

The act was amended in April to increase the maximum fine for directors of corporations to $1.5 million, but it became law after the January 2022 explosion and therefore can’t be applied in this case.

Still, Martel said she was glad the incident was not being “swept under the carpet and somebody will be [held accountable].”

Need better safety standards, says son

Bastien’s son Josh Bastien worked at Eastway alongside his father until the spring of 2021. He said he left the company over safety concerns and he’s hopeful a conviction could help lead to broader change in the industry.

“I worked for so many lax companies. It’s not just Eastway,” he said. “As a country we need better safety standards and enforcement, specifically on sectors where lives are in jeopardy the most.”

Soon after the January 2022 explosion, CBC spoke with three former Eastway employees, including Josh Bastien, who alleged unsafe working conditions there, including fires, improper storage of flammable chemicals and welding near “hot trucks” — tankers that still contained fuel or flammable residue.

In a statement to CBC News at the time, Greene called the allegations “unfounded.”

One of the charges filed against Eastway this week alleges the company failed to take one or more precautions to protect workers. That includes ensuring that a truck “was free of gasoline or any other flammable liquid or substance while work and/or testing capable of being a source of potential ignition was taking place on or near the truck.”

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Josh Bastien, right, and his father Rick Bastien prepare a meal while camping. Josh Bastien left Eastway Tank in 2021. (Submitted by Josh Bastien)

‘Emotions are high,’ says former employee

Martel said she’d like to see the ministry conduct more inspections of workplaces — particularly those done without notifying companies first.

The Ministry of Labour says inspectors previously found issues at Eastway related to ventilation, welding safety and training and exposures to hazardous chemical substances in June 2017 — issues the ministry said were promptly addressed. That field visit was made in response to a workplace health and safety complaint.

families of workers killed in ottawa tanker plant explosion react to charges against company 4
Chris Collins worked as an electrician at Eastway Tank for about three years. He left in March 2021. (Submitted by Chris Collins)

One of the other former Eastway workers who spoke to CBC after the explosion, Chris Collins, said it’s been a hard year, particularly for families that went through their first Christmas without loved ones. 

“I know emotions are high as the anniversary comes up as well,” he said. 

Ferguson said still not knowing the exact cause of the explosion nags at her. 

“I really wish [Kayla] was still here,” she added. 

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