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An aerial image shows the collapsed roof of a storage tank that was under construction in April 2007. Two workers were killed and five others hurt in the collapse. ((CBC))

Alberta says the complexity of dealing with a Chinese state-owned corporation is behind the long delay in prosecuting companies charged in the deaths of two oilsands workers.

"In this specific case, there are multiple parties involved, one of which is located outside of Canada and maintains that they have not been served with charges," said Chris Chodan, a spokesman for Alberta Occupational Health and Safety.

"It has made it more complicated for us. It makes it more difficult for us to get the procedure done."

Genboa Ge and Hongliang Lui, both temporary foreign workers, died on April 24, 2007, when the oil tank they were working on near Fort McMurray collapsed. Other workers were injured.

Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company Ltd., SSEC Canada Ltd., and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. face 53 charges in the deaths under Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act.

SSEC and Canadian National Resources are to go to trial on Oct. 3, 2011 — almost 4½ years after the workers died — the longest delay in Alberta for such a prosecution.

There is still no court date set for Sinopec because the corporation's senior managers in China have not been served with legal papers in the case.

The Alberta government says the delay has nothing to do with the fact that another division of Sinopec — Sinopec International Petroleum Exploration and Production Co.— is investing in the oilsands, including a $4.65 billion US stake in Syncrude that was approved by Ottawa in June.

3 years to prosecute

"I'm pretty confident that that has had no part to play in this at all," Chodan said. "I can see how people might think that, given the size of it, but no, it is not. It is simply a case that it is a very complex case to bring to trial."

A labour group says Alberta usually takes about three years to prosecute workplace safety death charges when other provinces deal with such cases within one year to 18 months.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the province should make it clear to foreign companies that they must obey and abide by Alberta and Canadian laws if they want to operate here.

"A wait of 4½ years is outrageous and unacceptable. Justice delayed is justice denied," McGowan said.

"The bottom line for us is that if workplace rules have been broken and if employees were unnecessarily put at risk, then the companies involved should be made to pay the price. It shouldn't matter where those companies are from."

McGowan noted that between 2006 and 2009 there were 142 deaths on Alberta worksites, but only four of those deaths led to convictions.

In a separate case involving Sinopec, Alberta Employment Standards says it's continuing to work with China to return $3.17 million in wages that were taken from the bank accounts of 132 Chinese temporary workers in Alberta in 2007 who were employed at a Canadian Natural Resources project.

To date, none of the workers has been repaid.

One of the workers, Huang Yungang, launched a lawsuit against Sinopec to recover $42,900 of his wages with the help of the Christian Labour Association of Canada. He later dropped the lawsuit after he returned to China. 

In court documents, Sinopec Shanghai Engineering and SSEC Canada Ltd. said Huang Yungang agreed to contribute part of his wages to social welfare and insurance funds in China.

Barrie Harrison, an Alberta Employment Standards spokesman, said the province is determined to find each of the workers in China and pay them their wages from a fund set up by Canadian Natural Resources.

"Dealing with China is very complex," Harrison said.