The announcement was described as a national embarrassment, the crass political manoeuvre of a desperate Quebec government trying to hold on to a Liberal seat at the cost of public health.
Critics lined up with speed and in number on the long weekend to blast Premier Jean Charest for green-lighting a $58-million loan to Canada’s last asbestos mine late on the Friday of the unofficial start of summer vacation season.
The loan stunned environmentalists, the medical community and cancer-fighting groups while promoters of the controversial relaunch of the Jeffrey Mine were more difficult to find. Even the province’s own public-health doctors are outraged.
Mr. Charest “has good reason to be ashamed,” said Yv Bonnier Viger, head of Quebec’s association of public-health specialists. “He is relaunching the exploitation of an extremely dangerous material that will cause the suffering and death of thousands of people in poor countries, at only marginal benefit to a desperate community.”
The province, led by retiring minister and local Liberal member of the legislature, Yvon Vallières, announced the loan and reopening before hundreds of thrilled residents of the economically depressed town of Asbestos.
Bernard Coulombe, the mine’s president and tireless promoter, had worked for years to find private investors willing to put in the balance of the $83-million start-up cost. “It was not easy to convince partners to work with us,” he said, adding that the mine will run 20 years on the investment.
Kathleen Ruff, an activist who has fought against government funding for the mine for years, said there was good reason for the difficulty: “The marketplace had spoken, this mine can only survive with artificial government life support.”
Mr. Charest has recently been on a wider push for more mining, as exemplified by his Plan Nord to ramp up resource extraction, but immediate political calculations are also at play.
The Premier is expected to call an election later this year – a vote he will be hard-pressed to win. While most Quebeckers oppose asbestos mining, the plan will have plenty of backers around the mine location in the Eastern Townships, where seats can swing.
Mr. Vallières dismissed talk of political gain, saying the decision was “well thought out and responsible.” Mr. Vallières, whose father worked for 40 years in the chrysotile asbestos mine, said project officials will be required to ensure proper handling by purchasers. “I’m confident Quebec will become a world leader in the handling of chrysotile,” he said.
The Jeffrey project will have miners dig underground in what was an open-pit mine to harvest asbestos for use in construction, mainly in developing countries. Asbestos has fallen out of use or been banned outright in much of the developed world because of well-documented risks of deadly lung disease from the dust.
The World Health Organization says 100,000 people die each year from asbestos-related disease. Quebec has among the world’s highest rates of a cancer known as mesothelioma, a legacy of mining and heavy use in all kinds of products through most of the past century.
Improved techniques have rendered extraction relatively safe for asbestos miners who will make about $16 an hour. The bigger ongoing health risk is in developing countries such as India, where handling is often haphazard.
“It’s really beyond me, I really can’t understand how the government could make such a decision,” said Paul Lapierre of the Canadian Cancer Society, which described the move as an “embarrassment.”
Both former Liberal and current Conservative federal governments have tried to protect it from international bans, while all of Quebec’s political parties have long promoted asbestos mining.
Quebec lagged as world opinion turned against asbestos, partly because of economic interest, partly because of history.
Thousands of miners walked out in 1949, supported by intellectuals like Pierre Trudeau, to win safer working conditions (including improved filtering of asbestos dust) and better wages. The strike, by far Quebec’s biggest and longest at the time, was seen as a driver of the Quiet Revolution.
Asbestos was long celebrated as a magic fibre for its imperviousness to fire. It was called a “gift from God” in one 1977 Radio-Canada documentary. It is said Charles V, the fourteenth century king of France, would amuse guests by wrapping himself in asbestos and jumping into fire. (France shocked Quebec by banning asbestos in 1997.)
In the late 1970s, 6,000 miners worked in the industry. The latest relaunch will eventually employ about 425 people.