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Government memo predicts demise of Canada’s last asbestos mine

Canada’s last producing asbestos mine could run dry as soon as next year, according to a confidential government memo.


The February 2008 memo, issued by Natural Resources Canada, estimated that the Lac d’aminate du Canada mine in Quebec, the country’s last remaining chrysotile mine, had a “mining life” of no more than two to four years.


Canada was once the world’s top producer of asbestos, representing 85 percent of world production in the early 1900s. But the industry has been in steady decline for decades, since research first linked asbestos exposure to mesothelioma, a rare but fatal cancer, and lung disease.


According to the most recent data from the U.S. Geological Survey of mineral production, Canada’s share of global asbestos production was about 5 per cent, or roughly 100,000 tons, in 2010. About 90 percent of the 800-1,000 tons of asbestos imported by the United States, which stopped asbestos mining in 2002, comes from Canada.


Nearly 110,000 people worldwide die from asbestos-related diseases each year, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO estimates that one in every three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos, and that several thousand people die annually from exposure to asbestos in the home. 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.


The Canadian memo underscores the precarious nature of the country’s asbestos industry, while bolstering the efforts by critics and public-health advocates who have long demanded the country cease exporting the deadly substance.


The memo noted that until 2008, Canada had three functioning asbestos mines that employed 900 people. The Bell Chrysotile Mine, Québec's last underground chrysotile mine, shut down in March 2008 after nearly 50 years of production. The Jeffrey Mine, whose financial troubles have led to a drastic cut in production, is only operational a few months a year. The mine’s owners say they need a $58 million loan guarantee from the Canadian government to avoid shutting down for good. The government has said the company first needs to raise $25 million from private investors.


At least 55 countries, including the European Union, have banned the use of asbestos. But poor and less-developed countries such as India and the Philippines continue to use the substance and rely on Canadian exports to meet demand. On two separate occasions, Canada has managed to block an international effort to place chrysotile asbestos on a list of toxic substances subject to a United Nations treaty called the Rotterdam Convention.


That would have required Canada to receive “Prior Informed Consent” before the mineral could be exported, and allowed countries that import asbestos to refuse to accept the mineral if they thought they could not handle it safely.


Meanwhile, Canada’s Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has continued to support the industry, arguing that asbestos is a legal product in many countries and can be used safely. Earlier this year, during a campaign stop in the Quebec mining town of Asbestos, Harper said, "This government will not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted."