MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Quebec's asbestos-created agonies

Published by MAC on 2020-02-20
Source: Montreal Gazette

Canada's province of Quebec was long one of the world's prime sites for extraction of one of  earth's deadliest minerals.

Despite the fatal impacts of asbestos having been identified in the early decades of the last century, it was mined here, domestically utilised - and exported across the globe until just 2018, when its use was banned by the country's prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

But the battle of words over how to deal with this horrendous legacy continues, as some companies advocate that profits can still be made by mining the fibre-rich tailings left behind [see: Canada set to ban asbestos ].

 

 

Pandora’s box opens on Quebec's deadly asbestos legacy

An independent inquiry is exposing the full impact of the carcinogenic fibre in the regions where it was mined — and far beyond.

It’s turning into a reckoning.

MICHELLE LALONDE

Montreal Gazette

15 Febrary 2020

As an independent commission deepens its investigation into what should be done with the mountains of asbestos-laced residues in Quebec’s former asbestos mining regions, a disturbing picture is emerging of the broader public health threat that Quebec’s asbestos legacy poses.

The Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) was given a ten-month mandate last fall to advise the government on whether the 800 million tonnes of tailings should be left undisturbed, levelled and covered with vegetation, or reprocessed to extract valuable commodities.

But the BAPE investigation is opening up the whole Pandora’s box of Quebec’s asbestos legacy, exposing the full impact of the deadly fibre in the  mining regions and beyond for the first time in the industry’s 140-year history. It’s turning into a reckoning.

“It’s about the choices Quebec made in the past, when asbestos was our white gold,” Félix Lapan of the Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades told the commission. “We put it everywhere, everywhere. Now we are stuck with it in our buildings today.

“We have to keep that in our heads in the decisions we are making today about developing the mining residues. The bad choices of the past, it’s the workers, the population, the sick people who are paying for that. We have to be careful we don’t make the same choices today. We have to look at the history and if we want the numbers (of dead and dying) to come down with time, we have to make good decisions today.”

Asbestos was mined between 1870 and 2012 at more than 20 different sites in the Estrie and Chaudière-Appalaches regions of Quebec. It’s in our homes, schools, hospitals, roads and infrastructure.

Breathing in asbestos fibres was associated with cancer as early as the 1930s, and most developed countries banned its use decades ago.

In 2016*,*Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally announced a ban on the import, sale, use and export of asbestos and products containing asbestos in Canada. But the ban, which came into force in 2018, exempted asbestos residues, leaving the door open for companies in the former mining region to exploit the tailings.

A half-dozen companies are poised to use the residues as raw materials, extracting valuable metals like magnesium, silica and manganese. Some want to produce magnesium ingots for car manufacturing, others to make fertilizer, or sand, for cutting steel and sandblasting. The tailings still contain asbestos fibres — about 20 per cent of their volume, on average — but the companies claim the fibres are completely destroyed in processing. So, they argue, these projects would not only create wealth,they would remediate waste sites.

The residues represent a significant economic opportunity. Entrepreneurs told the commission that billions of dollars stand to be made and hundreds of jobs created in a region that desperately needs them.

But there is concern that digging into and transporting the residues will send deadly fibres into the air, thus putting the health of workers and locals at risk. That’s why Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government asked the BAPE to investigate. The mandate was announced in September and the commission, led by environmental toxicologist and public health expert Joseph Zayed, must deliver its report to the government by July 24.

The commission held eight days of hearings in Thetford Mines and Asbestos in December, and will be back in both towns this week for a second and final round, starting Tuesday in Thetford Mines.

In January, the commission held five days of intensive sessions in Quebec City which brought together a veritable Who’s Who on asbestos from Quebec and around the world. Some of these people have battled each other for decades but have rarely been in the same room together.

Florence Loubier, a representative of CATTARA, a health and safety organization for injured workers in the Appalaches region, told the commission that workers in her region need jobs, but they also want the government to make sure safety measures are enforced.BAPE

In one poignant exchange, for example, a woman from Thetford Mines defended her region after a member of an asbestos victims’ group described the risk posed by even minimal asbestos exposure.

“When I hear what you are telling me, it hurts,” said Florence Loubier, a member of CATTARA, a support group for injured or ill workers in the Appalaches region.

Fighting tears, she said she grew up playing in the tailings and that her brother, husband, father and both grandfathers were asbestos miners. She spoke with pride of the miners’ long fight for safer working conditions andbegged the commission to find a balance between protecting residents and workers from harm while also respecting the region’s economic needs.

“In the mines, they fought for that, they worked for that. Not to close down a town, not to close down a region, but to clean things up so we could live well there,” Loubier said.

Daniel Green, scientific consultant to the Association of Victims of Asbestos in Quebec (AVAQ), a group that has not always been well received in the mining towns, responded that AVAQ respects that history and the miners’ struggle to redefine labour relations in Quebec.

“When we speak against asbestos, we are not speaking against you,” Green told Loubier. “You must understand that. We believe that in Quebec, in 2020, we should evolve and we don’t need to sacrifice our health for prosperity, that we should be able to have both health and prosperity at the same time.”

The hearings have been fascinating so far. You can watch these sessions or read the transcripts on the BAPE
<https://www.bape.gouv.qc.ca/fr/dossiers/etat-des-lieux-et-gestion-de-l-amiante-et-residus-miniers-amiantes/>website.

Here are some gleanings:

Prized for its heat-resistant and strengthening qualities, asbestos was
widely used in Quebec.

*Zero*: There is no level of exposure to asbestos fibres that can be
considered safe, according to the latest science.

*Worldwide, an estimated 255,000 deaths are attributed to asbestos each
year,*233,000 of which are considered to be due to work-related exposure.

*Quebec allows its workers to be exposed to more asbestos fibres in the
workplace than other jurisdictions*: the limit is one fibre per cubic
centimetre of air. That is 10 times higher than the limit in the rest of
Canada, and 100 times higher than the norm in some European countries.
Public health experts have been advocating for a lower limit here for
decades, and workers’ unions, such as FTQ Construction, have recently
joined that call.

*About 28,000 workers are manipulating asbestos-containing materials* on
the job in Quebec. These workers are mainly in the fields of
construction, maintenance and renovation.

*Between 2005 and 2015, 1,107 deaths from asbestos-related
illnesses*were confirmed in Quebec, which means asbestos exposure was
the cause of 85 per cent of all workplace-related deaths recognized by
Quebec’s workers’ safety agency, the Commission des normes, de l’équité,
de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST). On average each year,
the CNESST confirms 250 diagnoses of asbestos-related illnesses and 120
deaths from on-the-job asbestos exposure. Experts told the commission
those stats are just the tip of the iceberg.

*Death and illness generally come decades after asbestos exposure*and
many workers don’t realize they were exposed. Many are refused
compensation because their employers contest their claims. The
commission heard that deaths and illness are under-reported by workers,
under-diagnosed by doctors and under-recognized by the CNESST.

*Quebec compensates fewer workers* for asbestos-related illnesses than
Ontario and British Columbia, in absolute numbers, even though the mines
were here and asbestos was more heavily used in Quebec than in other
provinces. The CNESST does not keep track of how many asbestos-related
claims are refused.

Even when companies provide the best available equipment, workers end up
breathing asbestos dust, a researcher told the commission.

*About 50 per cent of the claims for asbestos-related illness and
death*are now coming from construction workers or their survivors. In
the past, miners made up about 98 per cent of those who were compensated.

*More than 1,000 kilometres of roadways in Quebec are paved with
asbestos asphalt. *The practice of mixing asbestos fibres into asphalt
to increase its durability began in the 1980s and continued until 2011.
After 2002, when the Quebec government adopted an official policy with
the stated goal of increasing the use of chrysotile asbestos across the
province, the practice increased substantially. Between 1988 and 2011, a
total of 1.34 million tonnes of asbestos asphalt was used on more than
1,000 kilometres of Quebec roadways, authorized by the province’s
Transport Department, mainly in the Estrie region, as well as the
Centre-du-Québec, Bas-Saint-Laurent and Chaudière-Appalaches regions.

*The cost of pulling up asbestos asphalt*when it needs to be replaced is
between $50 and $250 a tonne, or about 15 times the cost of replacing
conventional asphalt. Special equipment and worker protection measures
are required, and the asphalt must be trucked to a specialized dump for
disposal. The Transport Department has developed a technique to
stabilize the asbestos dust by adding a binding substance during
removal. Its plan is to eventually establish about 20 sites around the
province where this stabilized waste can be used to build permanent
highway infrastructure, such as wind screens, or to shore up
embankments. Sites will be chosen along roadways unlikely to require
future expansion or reconfiguration.

*Asbestos removal is too often done by uncertified companies or
homeowners who don’t understand the risk*, said Gilles Mercier,
president of AVAQ. He pointed to what he called exemplary public
awareness campaigns conducted byWorkSafeBC,
<https://www.worksafebc.com/en>and suggested Quebec should follow that lead.

More than 1,000 kilometres of roadways in Quebec are paved with asbestos
asphalt. The practice of mixing asbestos fibres into asphalt to increase
its durability began in the 1980s and continued until 2011.

*Protective equipment for construction and renovation workers is not as
effective as we might think,*Micheline Marier, an asbestos researcher
who now works with AVAQ, told the commission. In her research, she
visited asbestos removal worksites and interviewed workers. She found
that even when companies provide the best available equipment, workers
end up breathing asbestos dust.

“They told me the hardest thing was to drink water. These guys work for
hours on construction sites wearing a suit and a mask, the whole deal.
It’s very hot and it’s very physical work removing asbestos. So they get
thirsty, but if you want to drink water, you have to leave the site and
to leave the site, you have to do the whole procedure of showering etc.
What they told me was there was an informal agreement between
(management) and workers that instead of taking a morning break and an
afternoon break, as well as a lunch hour, they would take a longer lunch
break so as not to have to take a shower four times, but only two. What
this meant was that they would be on the site for five hours without
drinking water. So what the guys would do was bring their own bottle of
water and at certain points just remove their masks and take a drink of
water.”

*CNESST inspectors often forewarn employers* they will be showing up to
inspect work sites.

*Legal penalties for employers who are caught cutting corners on
asbestos protection *are lower in Quebec than in other provinces. An
employer who intentionally exposes a worker to asbestos is liable to a
fine of $68,721 here. In Ontario, the fine is $1.5 million and one year
in prison. In Alberta, it is $500,000 plus $30,000 per day (of
exposure), plus one year in prison.

 

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