MAC: Mines and Communities

Canada Update

Published by MAC on 2006-11-27

Canada Update

27th November 2006

Document contradicts Ottawa on asbestos


28th November 2006

Canada uses its international prestige to promote asbestos so low-cost, foreign producers of the controversial mineral won't drive Quebec's asbestos miners out of business, according to a federal document.

The document, written for Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn, contradicts the federal government's long-standing public position that its efforts to encourage what it calls the "safe use" of asbestos are purely for public-health reasons, and not for commercial gains by Canadian companies.

Senior bureaucrats prepared the document as part of a briefing in May for Mr. Lunn to explain why Canada should oppose an effort by the Rotterdam Convention, a UN-organized body, to place the chrysotile variety of asbestos on the list of the world's most hazardous manufactured substances, which would have been a damaging image blow.

Ottawa says it promotes asbestos because the material's cancer risks are overblown, and in any case can be mitigated with proper precautions. Based on its assertion that asbestos can be used without undue harm, Canada has worked for years to block international regulatory efforts against the material.

Chrysotile is the type of asbestos now in worldwide use and is produced domestically in Quebec by Jeffrey Mine Inc. of Asbestos, and LAB Chrysotile Inc. of Thetford Mines.

The effort to place chrysotile on the Rotterdam list was blocked last month, with Canada taking a leadership role in scuttling the attempt.

The document indicates that federal officials believe there is a type of informal quid pro quo operating in the industry, with Canada using its good image abroad to promote asbestos, in return for foreign companies treating Canadian miners with kid gloves in the battle for market share.

"Foreign producers tolerate higher-cost Canadian producers because of Canada's leadership and credibility in promoting the safe use of chrysotile," the document says.

Natural Resources is the main federal department handling asbestos issues. The document was produced by a group that included assistant deputy minister Gary Nash, the former head of the Montreal-based Chrysotile Institute, an industry association.

In an interview, Alek Ignatow, acting director-general for industry analysis at Natural Resources, said the government review of the asbestos industry indicates Canadian companies are marginally profitable and foreign competitors could undercut them, if they chose to.

"Why would they not put Canada out of business if they could? . . . There has got to be something of interest to them to keep Canada in the business," he said.

He said the federal government has not based its analysis on how companies deal with each other through talks with foreign producers. Canada's main export rivals are in Russia, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe and Brazil.

Although portions of the record are censored, it also indicates that if Canada flagged in its efforts to back asbestos, federal officials believe foreign companies would stop propping up the Canadian industry, using price competition to drive domestic miners out of business.

"It would also encourage the lower-cost producers to withdraw support for the Canadian chrysotile industry in that they could easily reduce prices to eliminate Canadian competition," it says.

The document was among a group of records on federal asbestos policy obtained by Ottawa-based access-to-information researcher Ken Rubin.

E-waste can kill, UN agency warns


27th November 2006

OTTAWA - Canadians threw out 67,000 tonnes of obsolete computers, cellphones and printers last year, probably not aware that this junk harbours toxins that can kill.

Now the UN Environment Program warns that much of the rich world's electronic junk is being dumped in developing countries where it can pose serious health risks to those who handle it.

Electronic trash is laced with arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, mercury and other toxic metals.

Canada is among more than 160 countries who are meeting this week in Nairobi, Kenya in hopes of updating the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste to deal with the problem.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program, told the conference consumerism was driving a "growing mountain of e-waste" and a lot of it is being dumped in poor African countries.

He referred to a recent case in Ivory Coast, where fumes from European toxic waste killed at least 10 people and left more than 70,000 seeking medical treatment.

Now the impoverished country is spending $30 million to retrieve the waste and send it back to France.

"This is a scar on the conscience of the international community," said UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall.

"A poor country coming out of a civil war with little money, a country with many living on less than a dollar a day, is footing the bill for cleaning up toxic waste which has killed some of its citizens and poisoned thousands more."

He cited a recent study of the marine environment that found heavy metals and other contaminants from obsolete electronic goods are starting to appear in coastal waters and marine sediments in Asia.

The Basel Convention, of which Canada is a signatory, was intended to prevent dumping of hazardous waste in poor countries. It requires exporters to obtain prior, informed consent of any country receiving waste.

But that regulation is being thwarted, partly because of corruption in recipient countries, and partly because it is hard to distinguish toxic waste from second-hand equipment that could still be useful.

Developing countries have proposed an amendment to the Basel Convention that would place a complete ban on the export of hazardous waste to their shores.

About 65 countries, including EU members, now have ratified the amendment but Canada has not, said Sarah Westervelt of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network. She hopes Canada will support the amendment.

Joe Wittwer, an expert at Environment Canada, said Canada will support a strong resolution on dumping of e-waste at the meeting in Nairobi, but he defended the "informed consent" approach.

In the United States alone, some 14 million to 20 million personal computers are thrown out annually. The number of cell phone users will reach two billion by 2008, and studies say cell phones tend to be thrown out within 18 months.

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