Photo: Asbestos: Politics wins out over principles

Quebec's decision to bankroll a revival of the Canadian asbestos industry flies in the face of the principles of sustainable development. (Credit: Axel Drainville via Flickr)

By Lisa Gue, Environmental health policy analyst

Bad news: late last Friday afternoon the Government of Quebec confirmed a $58 million loan to enable Jeffrey Mine to restart and expand operations.

Over the next 20 years, the mine is expected to extract 200,000 tonnes of asbestos annually for export, most likely to developing countries in Asia. Asbestos is rarely used anymore in Canada because health authorities warn it causes cancer when its fibers become airborne and are inhaled. Currently the federal government is spending millions to remove asbestos insulation from the buildings on Parliament Hill.

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Globally, it is estimated that asbestos exposure causes more than 90,000 preventable deaths each year. Some 40 countries have banned asbestos altogether, including all the member states of the European Union. But there's still a market for it in developing countries — thanks in no small part to Canada's hypocritical efforts to promote exports and block restrictions on international trade.

It looked like this sorry chapter in Canada's history might at last come to a close, when the last two asbestos mines in Quebec were shuttered last year. But the owner of Jeffrey Mine — an entrepreneur in the export business with connections in India, where asbestos is still used in construction — pitched the Quebec government on a plan to revive the industry. He had the support of local politicians, promising hundreds of jobs at the mine. All he needed was a $58-million loan guarantee from the province to help attract private investors.

That was objectionable, but it gets worse. Instead of the originally proposed loan guarantee, the province on Friday confirmed it would dole out $58-million in a direct loan to resuscitate Jeffrey Mine.

Perhaps private lenders were not convinced that keeping the mine open was a good investment — even with the prospect of a taxpayer-backed guarantee. Maybe they were deterred by Jeffrey Mine's credit history (the mine declared bankruptcy in the past), or by the dubious future of trading in a recognized carcinogen that countries around the world are moving to ban. Neither of these considerations, nor widespread public opposition, were enough to turn the Quebec government off the project. With an election in the offing, and the seat up for grabs in the riding where the mine is located, politics won out over principles.

Countries from around the world recently met at the United Nations conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Rio "Earth Summit" on sustainable development. Jean Charest attended the original summit as Canada's Environment Minister. Leading up to the recent Rio meeting we sent Quebec Premier Jean Charest a letter urging him to concretely demonstrate his continued commitment to sustainable development by ending his government's support for the deadly asbestos trade. We still haven't received a reply our letter.

But, while at the summit, Premier Charest issued a press release stating, "Today I return to Rio as Premier of Quebec in order to measure the progress of sustainable development at the international level, as well as to witness to the fact that Quebec is committed, and has been for 20 years, to realizing the commitments made at the 1992 Earth Summit".

Actions speak louder than words, Mr. Premier. Quebec's decision to bankroll a revival of the Canadian asbestos industry flies in the face of the principles of sustainable development. Canada's international image as a leader on sustainable development isn't exactly glowing these days, and now it has been further tarnished with the stain of hypocrisy.

July 4, 2012

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Aug 06, 2012
4:10 PM

That is a beautiful picture!

Jul 17, 2012
11:45 AM

What if that is absolutely necessary for our work and function as a society? It might be better to have under the control, with the best possible protection measures, then to leave it to others (India etc.), where no environmental protection might be put in place.

Jul 06, 2012
5:35 AM

I cannot express in words how disappointed and shocked I am this $58 million dollar deal has gone through to support the asbestos mine in Quebec. My father recently died of mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
It's an absolute crime that asbestos will be exported to India, where there are likely little or no safety standards to protect workers there from exposure.

Jul 05, 2012
9:50 PM

I am sorry to hear about the governments decision to go ahead with the loan to the asbestos mine in Quebec. Leadership and commitment to enviornmental goals for future generations has taken a big dive. I guess the promise of money to people in developing countries for present generation holds more clout than the health of future generations health concerns. So I am sorry, s a canadian citizen to the people of India for my government funding of and allowing the sale of asbestos to the Indian people. Its kind of a double whammy as well. The developing countries need to improve their economies and our government in a sense has used this vulnerability to exploit these countries such as India. Call center outsourcing is one thing but selling a product that you would not allow your own people to use because it causes major health issues is well old paradigm thinking. I think our government can do better. There are other ways to empower and do fair trade with developing countries. I am sorry that the leadership of this country did not step up and show the way for the future.

Jul 05, 2012
6:02 PM

Shame! Shame on us! My cousin, a vibrant 61 year old woman, died on June 27th of mesothelioma. Source of asbestos — unknown. It could happen to any of us and will surely happen to those who are not trained to use "our" (unnecessary) product safely. Shame!

Jul 05, 2012
5:30 AM

Such hypocrites

Jul 04, 2012
4:06 PM

what can we do, i mean the average hard working tax payer, how do we make a difference?

Jul 04, 2012
3:22 PM

Thi is a very short-sighted gain for the quebec government which, clearly, values dollars over human lives. Not a great long-term strategy and not in anyway aligned with a green environmental promise.

Maybe the premiere doesn't realize that asbestos is still the no. 1 occupational killer in Canada or is this not a consideration to the corporate serial killers behind this decision?

Jul 04, 2012
1:59 PM

The government should be ashamed of themselves by putting the health of others at risk!

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