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$350,000 fine, no jail time, for Langley mushroom farm owners

Van Thi Truong, left, and her husband Ha Qua Truong attend a sentencing hearing at Surrey provincial court on Sept. 22. On Friday, Nov. 25, the couple were fined for their role in a 2008 workplace tragedy at a Langley mushroom farm, which left three men dead and two others with permanent brain damage. - Dan FERGUSON/Langley Times
Van Thi Truong, left, and her husband Ha Qua Truong attend a sentencing hearing at Surrey provincial court on Sept. 22. On Friday, Nov. 25, the couple were fined for their role in a 2008 workplace tragedy at a Langley mushroom farm, which left three men dead and two others with permanent brain damage.
— image credit: Dan FERGUSON/Langley Times

Families of the victims of the September, 2008 A-1 Mushroom Farms tragedy are outraged by a judge's decision to impose fines, and no jail time, for the accused in a workplace accident that killed three employees and left two others permanently brain-damaged.

The five men had all inhaled toxic levels of hydrogen sulphide gas while attempting to unclog a plugged pipe in a composting shed on the South Langley mushroom farm.

"Please tell me how money can give me happiness like my dad did," asked 15-year-old Tracey Phan during an emotional speech after Friday's hearing.

"I can buy a great big house, but what good does that do if I can't share it with the one person who taught me valuable lessons?"

Phan, pictured below, is the daughter of victim Michael Phan, who remains in a coma with permanent brain damage following the accident.

To her, justice would be to send owners of the mushroom farm to jail until her dad comes out of his coma, not handing out fines, she said.

"My father, who once was a lively person, is now no more . . . . His eyes are lifeless and brimmed with tears because he's in pain. Tell me do you want this for your loved one? "Would you put someone that you loved so much through all of this in exchange for money?"

Judge Kenneth Ball imposed fines totaling $350,000 on the owners of the farm, including $200,000 to the now bankrupt A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. and $120,000 to H.V. Truong Ltd.

Owner Ha Qua Truong was given a personal fine of $15,000 and his wife, Van Thi Troung, $5,000. Joint owner Thinh Huu Doan will pay $10,000.

The maximum sentence would have been fines totaling just over $600,000 and six months in jail.

"We don't need money to heal the pain, we need them to go to jail," said 10-year-old Eric Tran, son of victim Ut Tran, who died at the scene.

While wiping tears from her face, Eric Tran's mother Hong Anh Dang said through a translator: "If there was no accident, then my children will still have a father."

Michael Phan's biological father, Charles Fish, has also flown from his home in Texas to be with his son who he never met until after the accident.

"On a daily basis I've seen their loved ones in the hospital dealing with lives interrupted and children without fathers," said Fish.

"This is a bitter moment — these laws need to be changed.

"Compensation does not bring back the victims."

Judge Ball is calling the victims heros for selflessly trying to help their co-workers trapped in the pump shed.

"There is no basis to calculate the loss of or damage to a human life," he said at the beginning of Friday's hearing.

In May, guilty pleas were entered by Ha Qua Truong, Van Thi Troung, Thinh Huu Doan and the companies they operate — A-1 Mushroom Substratum Ltd. and H.V. Truong Ltd. — to 10 of 29 charges, including failure to have an occupational health and safety program in place, failure to educate workers about safety, failure to properly supervise workers and failure to make workers aware about confined space hazards.

At a hearing held last September, prosecutor Ron Kockx said the deaths and injuries occurred because a butterfly valve had become plugged with chicken manure, straw and gypsum in the pump house that served the mushroom composting operation at 23751 16 Ave.

The pumps had been in the open, but after they froze up one winter, the owners built a shed around them. It had no proper ventilation.

A plumber who tried and failed to unclog the pump on Sept. 5, 2008 told the owners to hire a sewer pump-out service.

Instead, two employees of the mushroom farm tried to unclog it themselves under the supervision of one of the owners, Doan.

Ut Tran unbolted a pipe covering to get at the blockage and reached in with a screwdriver to clear the line.

Then Tran said something about a strange smell.

Doan says he told Tran to leave.

But Tran took one step toward a ladder and fell, face down, into 16 inches of waste water at the bottom of the shed.

The second man stayed with Tran, while Doan left the shed to get help.

In the next few minutes, three other men would enter the shed and be overcome by the fumes.

Later tests showed a fatal amount of hydrogen sulphide gas had built up behind the blockage.

The first paramedics to arrive had been told they were dealing with a drowning.

They quickly realized it was a confined space situation, and that they didn't have proper breathing equipment to safely enter.

The two paramedics put in a call for assistance and fought to keep other workers from entering the shed, where they could hear one of the men was still conscious and screaming for help.

The paramedics knew that allowing other unprotected people into the shed would only add to the casualty list.

"It was extremely difficult both as paramedics and human beings ... to watch helplessly as these men died before our eyes," one told WorkSafe investigators.

Prosecutor Kockx said the owners had not even read the mandatory safety regulations and had no idea of their responsibilities.

"None of the precautions that should have been taken with a confined space were taken," Kockx  said.

There was no training for employees and no procedures were in place.

Workers "were essentially asked to be careful" and that was it.

Given the circumstances of the fatalities and permanent injuries, BC federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair does not believe justice has been served. He and the victims' families are calling for an inquest into the mushroom farming industry and the events that occurred at A-1 Mushroom Farms on the day of the accident in 2008.

"We're really disappointed and angry. We're not holding our breath with this government, but we do want at least an inquest . . . this door needs to be opened again for what happened to these workers," he said.

"I don't think fines were the answer here," Sinclair continued.

"This was a catastrophic accident and somebody was responsible for it — the companies. Even token jail time would have sent a message to this industry that it's time to clean up your act."

— with files from Dan Ferguson

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