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Ralph Sultan's explosive past
WV candidate tied to Westray mine disaster

Jan-Christian Sorensen and Katharine Hamer;

A Nova Scotia MLA has linked West Vancouver-Capilano Liberal hopeful Ralph Sultan to a company responsible for the deaths of 26 miners in that province.

The Westray mine, located in the small town of Plymouth, in Pictou County, exploded on May 9, 1992, killing 26 miners who were below ground at the time.

The bodies of 15 victims were found within five days of the explosion, but 11 miners remain buried at Westray, which has since been flooded and sealed.

A government commission struck to investigate the causes of the explosion shortly after the tragedy found parent company Curragh Resources Inc. and provincial mining inspectors negligent in their approach to worker safety at the mine.

The blast was likely caused by the ignition of a pocket of methane gas, a natural byproduct of coal.

Westray was operated by Ontario-based Curragh Resources and Chief Executive Officer Clifford Frame, who secured over $100 million in public money to help set up the mine only one year before the explosion. Notable political figures involved in the deal include then-MP for the riding and future prime minister Brian Mulroney and MLA and future Nova Scotia premier Donald Cameron.

Also involved was Sultan, who was then a director with Curragh Resources.

Sultan won the party's nomination for the West Vancouver-Capilano riding after former Liberal MLA Jeremy Dalton was ejected from the caucus in January for "conduct unbecoming an MLA" (Dalton had three times used his official letterhead for correspondence in matters of personal interest).

However, Sultan's biography lists nothing of his time served with Curragh.

When asked at a political rally in North Vancouver on Monday, Sultan admitted that he was a director of Curragh Resources at the time of the Westray disaster.

"I was a director," said Sultan, who went on to call Westray "a great tragedy."

Sultan's biography summarizes the years between 1980 and 2000 by stating that "he was involved as a senior officer (Executive VP, President, Chairman) in 10 different companies -- some large, some tiny, some successful, some unsuccessful..."

Sultan said that he was simply involved in too many companies -- three times the number listed on his resume, in fact -- to identify them all.

"(Curragh) is not listed and 30 other companies I was director of are not listed, either. I haven't listed any of the companies because that would be a long, long list," said Sultan.

Last Wednesday Kevin Deveaux, the NDP member for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, marked the ninth anniversary of the tragedy by informing the Nova Scotia House that Sultan is running for office here.

"Whereas Ralph Sultan is the B.C. Liberal candidate in the safe seat of West Vancouver-Capilano, but his campaign omits the details of his mining career," stated Deveaux, " it resolved that this House notes with dismay the possibility that a senior executive who shared responsibility (for) the Westray Mine tragedy could enter the government of B.C."

Deveaux, who was elected to the legislature in 1998, was a health and safety prosecutor for the Ontario Ministry of Labour before moving to Nova Scotia to help redraft that province's Occupational Health and Safety laws following the Westray disaster.

Sultan's biography also states a number of his beliefs, such as a commitment to "individual responsibility".

"As they say down on the farm," the profile states, "we need more people pulling the wagon than riding on it."

However, Curragh Resources personnel, notably Frame himself, repeatedly balked when asked to testify before the government commission that was struck to investigate the explosion.

Sultan said he was cleared of any wrongdoing by fellow Curragh director and former Liberal prime minister John Turner, who visited the site shortly after the explosion.

"When the accident occurred we sent John Turner ... down to see what the circumstances were, and in particular, to ascertain whether the directors of Curragh had carried out their responsibilities. Turner came back and said we had fulfilled our responsibilities."

When asked if Curragh should have taken more responsibility for what happened, Sultan said that the families had been adequately compensated.

"They were looked after under the laws of Nova Scotia and by the WCB," he said. "They received pensions for life, which is what happens with industrial tragedies of this sort."

In a report entitled The Westray Story: a predictable path to disaster, Westray Commission chair Mr. Justice K. Peter Richard states that the mine was a "veritable Pandora's Box of human faults and foibles." His report damns both the mine inspectors as well as the senior management of Curragh Resources itself.

"If there ever was a study in how not to manage a business in a safe and responsible manner, Westray is surely a textbook example. From the Chief Executive Officer on down there was a palpable disregard for even the most basic safety considerations ... the management at Westray, through either incompetence or ignorance, lost sight of the basic tenet of coal mining: that safe mining is good business.

"It is a tragic story ... of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency and of cynical indifference."

Pictou County has not been without its share of mine tragedies: Nova Scotia historian James Cameron estimates that over 625 miners have died there since mining of the rich-yet-volatile Foord Coal Seam first began in the early 1800s.

Curragh Resources went bankrupt not long after the Westray tragedy.

The company's main asset, the Faro lead-zinc mine in the Yukon, was sold to Anvil Range Mining Corp., a Toronto-based company in which Sultan, former Curragh chief financial officer Adrian White and former federal energy minister Bill McKnight were involved.

When asked specifically about Sultan's ties to Curragh and the Westray disaster, Liberal leader Gordon Campbell painted it as an NDP smear tactic.

"I think that it's a pretty desperate stretch by the NDP. Mr. Sultan has a long and distinguished record in business on a number of boards of directors and as an economist for the Royal Bank. (It's) a reflection of how desperate they are."

While Deveaux's address to the legislature might seem like opportunistic timing in light of an impending provincial election, he strongly denied any such aim.

"Westray is an issue that goes beyond partisan politics in Nova Scotia. Yes, I'm an NDP member, but this could have just as easily been introduced by a Tory or a Liberal. In Nova Scotia, Westray resonates with the people because it's a symbol of corporate greed and corporate decisions that affect people's lives, quite literally."

He said that Sultan's involvement was very nearly overlooked, in fact.

"It was just more of a fluke than anything. A small world. But it's one of those issues that I'm glad is out there.

"When we saw this we said 'My God, Mr. Sultan was involved in a company that was so egregious in its neglect of workers ... Let's be honest, (the Liberals) are going to win. Ujjal Dosanjh has admitted that. (Sultan's) going to be a member of the government's side and we think that's a very worrying scenario. I don't know much about politics in British Columbia but I would hope that people like that would be kept far away from sitting in the government caucus."

There was fierce competition to replace Dalton -- seven candidates were on the slate at a riding nomination meeting March 31. The riding is considered the safest in the province.

In the last election, Dalton garnered 71 per cent of the vote. Sultan, a neophyte politician who said part of his reason for running was that he had been "contacted by Gordon Campbell's people," beat out his nearest opponent, Science World boss Barbara Brink, to become the official Liberal candidate.

Campbell, who has spoken repeatedly of the need for "a new openness" and integrity in government, was asked at the rally Monday whether personal accountability among MLAs would also be a central tenet.

"We have standards that we expect to be met," said Campbell. "Standards of conduct are going to be very important to the B.C. Liberal government. One of our tasks is to restore people's sense of confidence and trust in their public institutions."

Does he have complete confidence in all of his candidates?

"I have confidence," he asserted, "in all the people that are seeking office today. This does not mean that we will be flawless. There are mistakes that will be made."

-- with files from The Halifax Chronicle-Herald/Mail-Star; <>; <>


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