The news that the Jeffrey Mine will reopen may warm some hearts in the Eastern Townships. Nevertheless, the Quebec government’s decision to provide a $58-million loan to Canada’s last asbestos mine is a shameful thing.
As Canadians headed off to the beach and the cottage last Friday, Yvon Vallières, provincial Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and MNA for the riding of Richmond, visited Asbestos, Que. to officially announce the long-promised loan and the reopening. It’s a move that will provide 425 jobs for that community and may help the beleaguered Liberals hold Richmond and other ridings in the region when Premier Jean Charest calls an election. It’s also a move that will risk lives in India, where the mine will ship the white asbestos known as chrysotile for use as a composite in cement.
Although Canadian governments have long maintained that chrysotile is safe if properly handled, the World Health Organization, the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Cancer Society, along with a host of other health and environmental organizations, believe asbestos use should stop because exposure causes lung disease and various cancers.
Furthermore, while safety standards have hugely improved inside Canadian mines, numerous reports - including a 2011 Globe and Mail investigation - have cast doubt on the notion that the substance will be safely handled on Indian building sites. The WHO estimates that more than 100,000 people die every year from diseases related to asbestos exposure. That’s why all other developed nations ban the substance, and why nobody in Canada uses it.
Instead of letting the industry wither away, Quebec’s government is propping it up, helping out private investors who have signed on to relaunch the Jeffrey Mine. Is it too much to hope, in the summer that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has dedicated to wooing back Quebec, that the federal Conservatives would finally bring Canada into step with the rest of the developed world on this issue?
Canada should start by dropping its objection to listing chrysotile as a hazardous substance under the Rotterdam Convention, which would merely force exporters to fill out forms listing risks and safe handling procedures. And Quebec should let a dying industry die.