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Ontario families press Ottawa to stop supporting asbestos industry

Bernard Coulombe, CEO of Mine Jeffrey Asbestos Mine, poses near his mine's open pit in the town of Asbestos, Quebec, Thursday June 30, 2011. Coulombe is fighting to prevent the labelling of asbestos as a harmful substance.

francis vachon The Globe and Mail

Families of Ontario workers who died of asbestos-related diseases are making a last-ditch plea to stop a project that would revive one of Canada's only remaining asbestos mines.

A few families have banded together with other asbestos critics in a campaign they hope will sway the government of Quebec not to approve a $58-million loan guarantee for the Jeffrey Mine, located in the town of Asbestos.

"My mom's last wish was that we stop exporting asbestos to developing countries," Heidi Von Palleske, who lives in Cobourg, said Friday. The TV and movie actress lost both parents to mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

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"I cannot understand why it continues," she said in Toronto, where asbestos opponents held a symposium on tracking and preventing diseases linked to the contentious mineral. "It has to stop."

The fate of the Jeffrey Mine has been in limbo while Quebec makes its decision.

The deadline has been extended several times but the government has said it hopes to have the matter resolved before the Christmas holidays.

Critics, including dozens of doctors and several medical associations, argue the asbestos industry has caused cancer deaths in the poor countries where Canada exports the substance.

But proponents insist the product can be handled safely and has been unfairly demonized by an anti-asbestos lobby.

The man pushing to save the mine, the Montreal businessman Baljit Chadha, launched a public relations blitz of his own earlier this year to counter what he calls misinformation about asbestos.

On Friday, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley sent a letter to Mr. Chadha urging him to visit the southwestern Ontario city and "meet face-to-face with those who have been victimized by this deadly exposure."

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It's the second time the mayor has extended the invitation, he said in the letter.

Dubbed "Chemical Valley" for its concentration of industrial factories and plants — several of them insulated with asbestos in the 1950s, '60s and '70s — the area has seen many residents die of asbestos-related cancers.

Stacy Cattran's father, Bill Coulbeck, worked as an electrician in several Sarnia plants, exposing him to the mineral's fibres, she said. He died three years ago, just months after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, she said.

His death spurred her to research the disease and to lead a march against asbestos in Sarnia on Oct. 1.

"At the time, I didn't understand what the Canadian position on asbestos was, but I was soon horrified to learn that we were still exporting it to other countries," she said.

Beyond their immediate goal of ending support for the mine, the families said Friday they're calling for the government to ban asbestos outright.

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Use of the substance remains regulated in Canada, where millions of dollars have been spent to carefully remove loose asbestos that was stuffed decades ago into homes, schools and even the Parliament buildings.

Meanwhile, the Harper government has come under fire for helping to block asbestos from being added to a United Nations international hazardous-chemicals list in June.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 100,000 people die around the world every year from asbestos-related disease.

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