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The battle to end Canada’s asbestos industry: recent dramatic events

By Kathleen Ruff

The past few months have been a dramatic roller coaster ride in the battle to stop the revival of Canada’s asbestos industry. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is NEVER to give up hope and NEVER to stop fighting for health and justice, even when the battle seems lost!

At 3 pm on Friday, June 29, the former Charest government of Quebec announced that it had given a $58 million loan to two asbestos industrialists who wanted to re-open an underground asbestos mine (the Jeffrey mine) at Asbestos, Quebec and export millions of tons of asbestos to developing countries for years to come.

The two industrialists — Bernard Coulombe and Baljit Singh Chadha — have worked together to export asbestos from the Jeffrey open-pit mine for the past two decades. Previously the mine was owned by Johns-Manville, but after 130 years in operation the mine’s asbestos deposit was depleted and it had not been operating for the past two years. During this time, Coulombe and Chadha had been desperately seeking investors to cover the $83 million needed to complete the underground mine that was 90% built in the 1990s and then mothballed when Coulombe’s former company (JM Asbestos Ltd) declared bankruptcy.

Coulombe and Chadha formed a new company, Mineral Fibre Inc., to run the Jeffrey underground mine. They were able to find only one investor, Uran Kriewsakul, president of Oran Vanich Co., who invested $16 million. Kriewsakul’s companies sell asbestos-cement roofing in Thailand and he claims that “so far it has not been proved that asbestos causes death”- a deadly deception that improves sales. Chadha came up with the remaining $9 million for a total of $25 million, which the Quebec government required them to raise as a condition for its provision of a guarantee for the remaining $58 million needed.

Coulombe and Chadha failed, however, to find any financial institution or investor to come up with a $58 million loan, even though the Quebec government had already guaranteed the loan. It seemed the project was dead. At this point, the Charest government, showing endless dedication to propping up the dying and deadly asbestos industry, unexpectedly stepped in and took the unusual action of itself providing the $58 million loan.

A hundred workers were hired to complete the mine and get it ready for operations. Four weeks later, on August 1, Charest called a provincial election.

The Parti Québécois (PQ) won the election by a hair’s breadth. It won 32% of the vote, with the Charest Liberals winning 31%. It had been predicted that the election result would be close. It was therefore all the more to the credit of the PQ that, near the end of the election campaign at a moment when the World Cancer Congress was taking place in Montreal, it declared that, if elected, it would cancel the $58 million loan given by the Charest government and would work with people of the asbestos mining region to diversify their economy. The scientific evidence is overwhelming, said PQ leader Pauline Marois, that all asbestos is harmful and use should stop. It is almost certain that Marois’ commitment to canceling the loan that was intended to save the Quebec asbestos industry contributed to the PQ losing seats in the asbestos mining region. The PQ ended up being a minority government.

Very quickly after it took office, the PQ kept its commitment and cancelled the loan. It faced heavy criticism from local politicians, chambers of commerce, unions and asbestos industry allies in Asbestos and Thetford Mines. Christian Paradis, Prime Minister Harper’s Quebec lieutenant and federal Minister of Industry, joined in the attack and denounced the PQ for shutting down the asbestos industry, saying Premier Pauline Marois was destroying jobs and hurting the well-being of the community.

Paradis used the situation as a means for the federal government to extricate itself from the asbestos issue, which has been causing them increasing problems at home and abroad, while blaming the new Quebec government for the Canadian government’s policy reversal. Paradis stated that Canada will no longer block the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention, as Canada has done for the past decade. He also announced that the federal government would provide $50 million in funding to assist economic diversification of the asbestos mining communities.

It is ironic that the common explanation given for the Canadian government’s support of the asbestos industry is that it is bowing to Quebec separatists, who they fear to offend. But, in fact, the opposite has taken place. The Quebec sovereigntist PQ has shown courage and integrity in stopping the revival of asbestos mining in Quebec and has been attacked by the Canadian government for doing so.

Marois is facing heavy criticism from the asbestos mining communities where residents facing poverty and unemployment feel betrayed by the PQ. It is understandable that people who have been fed asbestos industry propaganda for so long and who live in single industry towns like Asbestos are angry and upset.

But the Marois government is staying firm. At a meeting with the people of Asbestos, the Minister for Industrial Policy & the Economic Development Bank Élaine Zakaïb, promised to set up an economic transition committee and to work and support the community to build its economy. She refused, however, all requests that the PQ consider reversing its cancellation of the loan. “We would no more consider financing the asbestos industry than we would the tobacco industry,” said Zakaïb.

It should be noted also that, contrary to the Quebec government’s recognition of the scientific evidence on asbestos, the Canadian government continues to deny the science and to spout the sordid propaganda that asbestos can be safely used if handled properly.

The Canadian government refuses to change federal occupational safety regulations which permit workers to be exposed to high levels of chrysotile asbestos – one fibre of chrysotile asbestos per cubic centimetre of air – which is ten times higher than the amount of asbestos permitted by Canadian provinces (with the exception of Quebec), the U.S. or Europe, and is one hundred times higher than what is permitted in Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Furthermore, because of the Harper government’s refusal to join other western countries and ban asbestos, this allows the continued import into Canada of millions of dollars’ worth of asbestos-containing products, such as car brakes and even children’s toys, which go on exposing Canadians to asbestos harm and death.

Stopping the revival of the asbestos industry in Quebec, with its consequent export of millions of tons of asbestos, was rightfully a priority for health campaigners, and the new PQ government has delivered on this issue. It truly seems that this battle has been won.

Yet more remains to be done.

We need a ban on asbestos mining in Quebec to be sure that no government in the future tries to restart the asbestos industry.

We need a registry of buildings and infrastructure that contain asbestos, the goal of a campaign recently launched by the Canadian Cancer Society.

We need financial and other help for asbestos victims and their families.

We need the Canadian government to legislate a ban on asbestos.

And we need the Canadian government to create and substantively finance a Reparation Fund to provide assistance to asbestos victims and deal with the tragedy created in developing countries, where Canada has exported huge quantities of asbestos over the past decades – for our financial benefit and for their loss of life.

Kathleen Ruff is a major contributor to PCN’s Ban Asbestos Campaign and is founder of and the author of Exporting Harm: How Canada markets asbestos to the developing world.

1) Canadian asbestos activist (our hero) Kathleen Ruff addressing demonstration in Paris (October 13, 2012)
2) François Vaudreuil (president, CSD trade union confederation), Hugues Grimard (mayor of Asbestos), Yvon Vallières (member of the Québec National Assembly) and Bernard Coulombe (president of Jeffrey Mine Inc) celebrate the $58 million loan given by the Québec government to open the Jeffrey asbestos mine. The new Parti Québecois government has cancelled this loan (June 29, 2012)
3) “We would not more consider financing the asbestos industry than we would the tobacco industry,” said Hélène Zakaíb, Quebec Minister for Industrial Policy & Development Bank (Fall 2012)

More from Kathleen Ruff:

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Also in the FALL 2012 Issue of An Ounce

Published: November 25th, 2012