MAC: Mines and Communities

The End of Quebec Asbetos Mining and Exports?

Published by MAC on 2012-09-20
Source: Radio Canada International, The Star

Canada and Quebec Reverse Positions on Asbestos

After years of lobbying and campaigning from health and human rights advocates, the weight of many contradictions has finally cracked the foundation of government support for mining and exporting asbestos from Quebec.

The recent changes could mean a final end to mining and exporting of the toxic mineral from Quebec.

First came a pivotal provincial election then a surprise announcement from the federal government that it was no longer going to block addition of chrysotile asbestos on the Rotterdam convention.

The feds erroneously claimed Quebec had terminated the industry's plans for revival, when in fact all they had said was that they would cancel a loan for re-devloping a closed mine

The company has responded that it will continue with plans to reopen the mine - though its ability to do so absent government financial backing is highly doubtful.

Below is one of the better media stories from Radio Canada International.

Additional coverage can be found at these links:

MiningWatch: Will the Quebec Election Mean the End of Asbestos Mining and Exports?

CBC: Canada won't oppose asbestos limits

Toronto Star: Right thing to do is ban extraction of asbestos

La Presse: Amiante chrysotile: le Canada fait volte-face

The belated demise of Canada's asbestos industry

Kathleen Ruff

The Star

22 September 2012

In the space of three weeks, the political support the Quebec asbestos industry has enjoyed for decades from the Quebec and Canadian governments came crashing down.

It could hardly have been more politically dramatic or more financially devastating for the tottering, bankrupt Quebec asbestos industry. After 130 years in operation, the last two asbestos mines in Quebec - the Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos and the mine run by LAB Chrysotile at Thetford Mines - shut down more than a year ago in the face of catastrophic financial and environmental problems.

Both mines, however, clutched to hopes of resurrection, nurtured by a $58-million loan given to the Jeffrey mine by former premier Jean Charest just before he called the recent Quebec election, as well as by the undying political support that Prime Minister Stephen Harper swore to give to the asbestos industry during the 2011 federal election campaign.

Things fell apart for the asbestos industry when, near the end of the Quebec campaign, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois promised to cancel Charest's $58-million loan and instead give financial support to help the asbestos mining region diversify its economy. Asbestos is an industry of the past, Marois said, pointing to evidence put forward
by Quebec's own medical authorities that asbestos is deadly and should no longer be mined.

Three weeks later, on Sept. 14, before the new PQ government had even been sworn into office, the federal government put the final nail in the industry's coffin. Christian Paradis, Harper's Quebec lieutenant and the asbestos industry's biggest cheerleader, announced - in his own riding of Thetford Mines - that Ottawa had concluded the industry was finished in Quebec and would provide $50 million for economic diversification instead of asbestos mining.

Paradis also announced that the government would cease blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance under the UN Rotterdam Convention, as it has done since 2006.

It's not often the Harper government backs down on any issue. No one should rejoice, however, that this sudden reversal might have been triggered by a new enlightened acceptance of scientific evidence or a desire to prevent further asbestos deaths. It was instead a cynical game of realpolitik.

Paradis accused Marois of destroying the economic well-being of the region by killing the asbestos industry. This delinquent act had forced the federal government to abandon its support of an industry that would no longer exist, he said.

Paradis did not mention that the industry had already closed down; that it had slashed wages and benefits of the last remaining workers to what the union president called "starvation wages"; that Quebec taxpayers are paying millions to clean up the environmental destruction caused by the industry; or that the industry has no hope of restarting without a massive injection of government funds.

The Harper government claims to be hard-headed on economic issues and to oppose government handouts. But Paradis omitted economic facts and instead sought to foment hostility against the new PQ government for destroying a supposedly viable industry.

Furthermore, Paradis denied the medical facts, repeating the sordid propaganda that asbestos can be safely used.

The Harper government is the only one in the western world that continues to deny scientific evidence on the threat asbestos poses to health. Not only people overseas, but also Canadians, are harmed by this denial. Health Canada puts out dangerous misinformation minimizing asbestos risk, and federal regulations permit exposure to asbestos fibres at a level 10 times higher than that permitted in other western countries.

The Canadian government allows asbestos-containing products, such as car brakes, construction materials, and even children's toys, to be imported into Canada, thus putting Canadians at risk. Unlike other industrialized countries, Canada has no national program to protect citizens from asbestos harm.

Canada needs to join the more than 50 other countries that have banned the mining, use and export of asbestos. Until it does, Canadians will, often unknowingly, continue to be exposed to asbestos and many will die painful deaths as a consequence.

The decision by Paradis to stop supporting the asbestos industry was a humiliating reversal for the Harper government. It was, nevertheless, an excellent decision, even if made for the worst reasons.

The government will no longer prop up the asbestos industry. This is a historic victory ending decades of federal financial and political support for a deadly industry.

The battle to end the Harper government's denial of scientific evidence and failure to protect Canadians from asbestos harm continues.

Kathleen Ruff is senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute and author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World.

Canada reverses position on asbestos

Radio Canada International

17 September 2012

Owners of the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Quebec say the mine will re-open in spite of the government's decision to withdraw a $58-million loan.

Canada has said it will stop defending asbestos internationally. The federal government announced it will no longer block international efforts to add the cancer-causing mineral to a United Nations list of hazardous substances.

In addition, the provincial government in the province of Quebec will cancel a multi-million dollar loan it promised to revive an asbestos mine there. RCI's Lynn Desjardins spoke with jubilant activists.

"I was extremely pleased by this decision that the Canadian government will no longer be an enemy of public health around the world on the asbestos issue," said Kathleen Ruff. She has, for years, lobbied to get the Canadian government to stop promoting asbestos, most lately in her role as human rights advisor to the Rideau Institute, an independent research and advocacy group.

"After 130 years of Canada being the major propagandist pushing the lies that asbestos is safe when we know it kills," said Ms. Ruff, "Canada's role as asbestos propagandist seems finally to be ended."

"We were surprised and very pleased with the decision," said Jim Chauvin, director of policy at the Canadian Public Health Association. His association has for several years been lobbying the Canadian government to stop blocking the listing of chrysotile asbestos in the Rotterdam Convention list of hazardous materials.

"What it means is that countries that import Canadian asbestos, for instance, will be informed prior to the importation that they are importing a hazardous product and that they have to take means to ensure the protection of people who will be handling it."

There's more Canada should be doing at home and abroad to reduce the risk that people will be exposed to asbestos, believe both activists. "We would like to see the asbestos industry shut down period," said Mr. Chauvin. That is likely to happen but not by any government decree. Three asbestos mines in the province of Quebec have closed over the years. The previous Quebec government offered a $58 million dollar loan to help revive the Jeffrey mine.

However a new government was elected earlier this month which has vowed to withdraw the loan. The company which owns the mine says the government decision will not stop it from reopening the mine early next year.

Quebec's decision to withdraw the loan was cited as the reason the federal government decided to stop blocking the listing of asbestos as a hazardous material. The government may also have come under pressure from the European Union with which it is negotiating a free-trade agreement. Whatever its motivation, the Canadian government appears to have yielded only grudgingly and it's not clear whether it plans to take any further action on asbestos.

"Canada should ban asbestos," said Kathleen Ruff. "It should create a registry of all the buildings that contain asbestos across Canada. It should provide help and support to asbestos victims and it should play a role on the world stage to let people know about the hazards of asbestos and to stop the use of asbestos."

More work needs to be done on asbestos, agrees Mr. Chauvin but he calls this step a small victory from which Canada can move forward.

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