The “miracle fibre” that helped drive Quebec's economy for more than a century now represents an industry near death, despite government efforts to keep it afloat.
In its heyday in the mid-1960s, Canada's asbestos industry employed thousands and produced about 40 per cent of the world's supply of the silky-white product known for its resistance to fire, rust and rot. It was used widely in construction throughout North America, including at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.
Now, it’s known more for being ripped out of walls as a danger to public health. Many developed nations have banned it outright, and critics warn it’s impossible to ensure its safe use in developing countries. These concerns over a known carcinogen have put the industry on its last legs.
Production at one mine has been halted until it can get refinancing, and another miner – Thetford Mines, Que.-based LAB Chrysotile –filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, leaving no active operations in Canada.
Yet a market still exists in the developing economies, and industry officials say chrysotile asbestos – popular in countries such as India and Indonesia as a reinforcing agent in cement products – is safe when used properly.
Proponents insist it has a glowing future in global markets, despite growing international pressure on the Canadian and Quebec governments to cease financial and political backing of the industry amid mounting evidence of asbestos’s health hazards.
“I’m convinced we can relaunch the mine. We’re going to push for a plan of action, talk to all the players,” said a determined Simon Dupéré, president of LAB Chrysotile, which announced Wednesday it had to declare bankruptcy after a halt in production last October led to mounting fixed costs with no revenue to offset them.
The company’s Lac d’Amiante mine in Quebec’s Eastern Townships employs about 350 people.
The mineral’s growing pariah status – it’s been singled out by medical and health authorities around the world as a major carcinogen and contributor to lung disease, and has been banned in dozens of countries – doesn’t phase Mr. Dupéré.
“We’ve been fighting [the negative publicity] I’m convinced that this product can – and is – used in a safe fashion,” he said. “It’s prized in many places as a low-cost infrastructure-building material.”
He aims to have the operations back up and running “as quickly as possible” and isn’t relying on government help, unlike the Jeffrey Mine, which has been struggling for months to clinch a new financing deal backstopped by Quebec.
The sector needs the clout and backing of the Quebec and federal governments to survive, said Kathleen Ruff, senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute. “The industry is totally bankrupt, but it continues to lobby to get public funds to save itself,” she said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is adamant that asbestos should not to be added to a global hazardous-chemicals blacklist under a United Nations treaty called the Rotterdam Convention. The government agrees with industry officials that asbestos is safe when used properly.
Officials in both the Quebec and federal governments were not available to comment Wednesday.
Worldwide production of asbestos is slipping, having fallen 5 per cent to just below two million tonnes in 2010 compared to a year earlier, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Russia accounts for about half that volume, followed by China at about 18 per cent and Brazil with 14 per cent.
Sales of asbestos are also falling worldwide, as more developed countries express concerns about health impacts.
John Ries, a business at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, said there are always victims in declining industries, particularly those with higher-cost operations.
As for the Canadian workers, Mr. Ries believes those who lose employment be able to find positions in other areas of the country’s booming resources sector, particularly in rich mining regions like Quebec.
“Hopefully these workers will find work elsewhere,” he said.
With files from Brenda Bouw.