Government loan resuscitates Quebec's asbestos industry
A $58 million government loan to reopen the Jeffrey Mine could extend the life of Canada's last remaining source of chrysotile asbestos for another 20 years.
The loan, announced last week by the provincial government in Quebec, will boost production at a time when Canada is under increasing international pressure to ban asbestos exports to developing countries.
At least 55 countries prohibit the use of asbestos, which causes lung cancer and mesothelioma, a deadly malignancy that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen. But poor and less-developed countries such as India and the Philippines continue to use the substance and rely on Canada, once the world's largest exporter of asbestos, to meet demand.
The Globe and Mail reports the loan will cover more than two-thirds of the cost of renovating and reopening the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec. Private investors will kick in another $25 million.
“This is excellent news for the city of Asbestos and for the region,” Yvon Vallieres, a member of the National Assembly, told The Globe and Mail. “The reopening of the mine will not only create 425 full-time jobs, especially for young people, but it will also contribute to development in Asbestos, a one-industry town.”
But Yves Bonnier Viger, president of an association of Quebec medical specialists in public health, told the newspaper he and his colleagues will lobby the government to reverse its decision.
“It makes me very sad,” Viger said. “It shows an insensitivity to the scientific data and a lack of respect for the health and well-being of the population.”
Canada has angered public-health advocates around the world by repeatedly blocking an international effort to place chrysotile asbestos on a list of toxic substances subject to a United Nations treaty called the Rotterdam Convention. Annex III of the convention requires exporters to adhere to a process called Prior Informed Consent, which gives importing countries the right to refuse shipments of hazardous materials.
The asbestos industry and its supporters in the government have long maintained that asbestos can be used safely if handled properly. But a government memo, unearthed last week under the country's open-records law, suggests that the government accepts the scientific consensus that asbestos is a potent carcinogen that presents a considerable risk in developing countries.
Governmental health and safety organizations around the world, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, warn that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Nearly 110,000 people worldwide die from asbestos-related diseases each year, according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that one in every three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos.
Bernard Coulombe, president of the Jeffrey Mine, has said the WHO data are exaggerated and not supported by scientific data.
In a news release following announcement of the government loan, Coulombe noted that the Quebec government recently signed an agreement with India on the safe use of mining materials. He said the chrysotile mined at Jeffrey will mostly be used to make cement for infrastructure like aqueducts, wells, and buildings that are mostly agricultural.
“We have taken all necessary measures to ensure that chrysotile be used safely by all our clients,” Coulombe said.
After exporting roughly 100,000 tons of asbestos in 2010, the Canadian asbestos industry, which once employed nearly 1,000 people at three mines, appeared to be on its last legs late last year. The Jeffrey Mine suspended operations, citing financial difficulties, and the Lac d’amiante du Canada in nearby Thetford Mines shut down shortly afterward, marking the first time in 130 years that no asbestos was being mined in Canada.
The Bell Chrysotile Mine, Québec's last underground chrysotile mine, shut down in March 2008 after nearly 50 years of production.