A year ago, over a lunch of oysters and fine wine at a posh downtown restaurant, Baljit Chadha held himself out as the potential saviour of Quebec’s faltering asbestos industry. This week, he plans to deliver.
Days before a provincial government deadline this Saturday to find private funding for the Mine Jeffrey in Asbestos, Que., the wealthy and well-connected Montreal businessman says he has “letters of intent” from unnamed investors in three different countries – enough to breathe new life into an export trade critics decry for causing death.
“I have done a lot of soul-searching on this and have come to a conclusion that we are not exporting death,” said Mr. Chadha, who combines an almost evangelical fervour for asbestos with the clout needed to pull off his controversial plan.
Mr. Chadha, whose company already handled much of the mine’s asbestos sales to his native India, offered to buy the mine outright in August of 2010, for “tens of millions.” But to clinch the deal, he had to secure an additional $25-million from outside investors while the Quebec government kept the mine afloat with a $58-million loan guarantee.
“Yes we have the $25-million,” he told The Globe and Mail.
If Quebec approves his investment plan, he hopes to ramp up annual export sales from the sprawling but largely unused mine to at least $150-million within two years. He projects $3.4-billion in sales over the next two decades.
That’s a prospect that appalls health experts who note that last spring Canada stood virtually alone in blocking a proposed United Nations treaty that would have added asbestos to a list of hazardous materials restricted worldwide.
“Asbestos is causing death and it can be prevented by stopping the export of it,” said Paul Lapierre, the vice-president of public affairs for the Canadian Cancer Society
Mr. Chadha came to Canada in 1973 to study science and business. Three years later, he set up Balcorp, an international trading company that today sells more than $100-million worth of Canadian goods to India annually – including between $5-million and $15-million in asbestos products.
A staunch Liberal, Mr. Chadha was appointed to the Privy Council of Canada in 2003 by then-prime minister Jean Chrétien to serve on the committee that oversees the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
In 2009, he held a private fundraiser in his Westmount home for Quebec Premier Jean Charest but he insists “we have never ever asked for any business favours from any government.”
For more than a decade, he has accompanied prime ministers and premiers on every major trade mission to India, which last year accounted for more than half of Canada’s 135,000 tonnes of asbestos sales.
And it is in his native India where Mr. Chadha faces his fiercest opposition.
“When most of the world, including Canada, has either banned or restricted the use of asbestos domestically due to health reasons, it’s hypocrisy bordering on racism to expose people from poorer countries to harm knowingly,” said Madhumita Dutta of the Occupational and Environmental Network of India, one of the groups that organized noisy protests when Mr. Chadha accompanied Mr. Charest on a 2010 trip to the subcontinent to promote the province’s exports.
Mr. Chadha, like other defenders of the modern asbestos industry, says the white chrysotile product of today – tightly “bonded” to reinforce cement in roofing sheets – is much safer than the loose, amphibole asbestos widely used in the past as insulation.
He says asbestos provides inexpensive roofing to India’s neediest people and vows that independent health investigators will monitor his customers there. But opponents say poor safety standards and the difficulty of tracking tons of asbestos products cast serious doubt on those promises.
Even Mr. Chadha acknowledges he has a tough sale. “I have to commend our enemies, they’ve done a fantastic job,” he said. “And I have to change that image.”
Monday, he sat down for a tense hour-long encounter on Parliament Hill with NDP backbencher Pat Martin, one of the harshest critics of Canada’s asbestos trade.
“I told him to his face that his business is morally and ethically reprehensible,” said Mr. Martin, who worked for two years in a Yukon asbestos mine back in the 1970s. “The jig is up for asbestos in this country. Mr. Chadha is the last man standing and he shouldn’t get any corporate welfare for a dying, deadly industry.”
But Mr. Chadha remains undaunted and plans to meet with the Canadian Cancer Society next month to continue his campaign.
“There have been times where with all the missiles that are being thrown at me you think: am I doing the right thing?” he said. “I have a very clear conscience. I don’t feel shame at all.”
By the numbers:
• 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases (World Health Organization);
• 70,000 tonnes of Canadian asbestos were exported to India in 2010 – more than half of Canada’s worldwide sales (Statistics Canada);
• Canada is the fifth-largest producer of asbestos, ranking behind Russia, China, Brazil and Kazakhstan, but it is the only country in that group to severely restrict domestic use while encouraging exports.Report Typo/Error
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