Asbestos is hardly used in Canada anymore. In fact its use is severely restricted under Canada's Asbestos Products Regulations because it causes cancer. That Canada continues to produce asbestos for export and promote its use beyond our borders is a case of questionable ethics.
This sorry chapter in our history looked like it might finally close when Canada's last two asbestos mines, both in Québec, began to wind-down their operations. Jeffrey Mine largely suspended production in 2009, and the Lac d'Amiante mine announced it will close permanently on November 13, 2011.
But wait! Jeffrey Mine has come forward with a proposal to restart and expand production. To finance this revival — which would see 200,000 tonnes of asbestos produced a year, mainly for export to India — the mine has asked the Quebec government for a $58 million loan guarantee. Astonishingly, it seems the government is struggling to make up its mind whether to throw this toxic industry a lifeline.
The province was going to announce a decision in the summer, but didn't. The deadline was extended to October 31. That date has come and gone and now the government is saying it hopes to resolve the issue before Christmas.
Politicians are frequently required to grapple with tough decisions, but this just isn't one of them.
Should the government encourage production of a substance that causes cancer and is toxic when inhaled? NO.
Should Canada and Quebec be hawking a substance that is hardly used anymore here at home — because of health concerns — for export to countries like India? NO.
Should tax-payers be on the hook if the privately-owned mine (which is already under bankruptcy protection) is unable to repay its debts? NO.
The Government of Quebec should reject the proposed loan guarantee, stop propping up the asbestos industry and move onto other issues... such as strengthening the province's ban on lawn pesticides and investing in green energy, for example.
Meanwhile, the federal government should stop the hypocrisy and get behind international efforts to restrict trade in asbestos. Canada has repeatedly blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos — the type mined here — under the Rotterdam Convention spurning the advice of health advocates like the Canadian Medical Association. Government MPs recently voted down an NDP motion to ban asbestos mining and exports.
Of course there are jobs at stake. Jeffrey Mine currently employs about 200 people, most of them part-time as the mine only operates sporadically. The Canadian Labour Congress, a strong advocate for banning asbestos, has called on governments to support workers' transition through investments in training and other assistance. That makes sense and in fact over the years the Government of Quebec has actively promoted economic diversification in the region of the mine.
Send a note to Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Prime Minister Harper asking them to pull the plug on exports of deadly Canadian asbestos to developing countries. Send a message now.
Download the David Suzuki Foundation's recent letter to Premier Jean Charest (PDF, French with English translation appended).