On the heels of Quebec’s new government rejecting the province’s profitable yet controversial export of asbestos, Ottawa will no longer veto the global push to list the chrysotile form of the silicate mineral as a hazardous material.
With the Parti Quebecois (PQ) elected earlier in September 2012, it immediately cancelled a $58-million loan promised by the previous Liberal provincial government, which would have reopened Canada’s last asbestos mine in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
Quebec is the only Canadian province to still deal in asbestos.
“…The federal government probably saw a chance to take a new approach and score some positive press,” environmental lawyer and author, David McRobert, told HazMat Management magazine. "…The federal government has taken a beating politically on its environmental and social policies since initiating sweeping reforms to environmental laws as part of its 2012 Budget Implementation Bill."
McRobert recently released his book Risky Business: The Use, Management, Transport and Disposal of Asbestos in Ontario. He dedicated the book to his father, “who suffered terribly from respiratory difficulties in the last decade of his life…likely attributable to asbestos exposure in his late teens and early twenties,” McRobert wrote.
Asbestos is commonly associated with asbestosis and pleural abnormalities (mesothelioma, lung cancer).
McRobert believes the new asbestos stance – long encouraged by Health Canada – has been in the “policy hopper” since the 2011 federal election.
Defenders of asbestos have argued in recent years that if handled and stored properly, the chyrsotile form of the mineral isn’t as dangerous as it’s often portrayed. Critics, however, have countered that cash-strapped developing countries still using the substance as an insulatory building material can rarely make such safety guarantees.
Five other forms of asbestos are already covered under the Rotterdam Convention, but the federal Canadian government had previously blocked the chrysotile form of asbestos from being listed on several occasions, most recently at a summit last year in Switzerland. The convention requires a consensus of its members to list a substance.
Canada’s new position leaves Russia in the asbestos-filled hotseat, speculates Kathleen Ruff, a contributor to the forthcoming issue of HazMat Management magazine. She says Russia will, in 2013, be a party to the Rotterdam Convention. It’s currently the world’s largest exporter of asbestos, exporting 748,000 tonnes in 2011.
“Will Russia pick up Canada’s role of saboteur of the Convention? It may well try to do so,” writes Ruff, author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World, and a senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute. “If so, enormous pressure will be exerted by the more than a hundred other countries present and, as did former USSR member countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine at the 2011 conference, Russia may find itself obliged to go along with the huge global consensus to list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance.”
In terms of the economic impact of removing asbestos from Quebec’s exports, McRobert says the feds’ plan is likely to come up short.
“What also was extraordinary is that the announcement was made less than four days after the election by the federal Minister of Industry, Christian Paradis, in his constituency of Thetford Mines. Paradis also announced that Ottawa will provide $50 million to enable workers to retrain in other fields of work, a position that was advocated by anti-asbestos activists for several decades.”
Still, McRobert doubts that the promised retraining programs will, in the long term, deliver the levels of income and employment in rural areas of Quebec that asbestos mining did in the past.
"In the meantime hundreds of workers in our region are without jobs, are living in uncertainty and hoping the mine will reopen…. Madame [Pauline] Marois has clearly made her decision,” Paradis said in an announcement September 14, 2012. “So our government has made a decision that it’s now time to look after our communities, workers and families.”
The Jeffrey Mine was expected to reopen in summer 2013 and produce and export 250,000 tonnes of asbestos per year over the next 20 years. It would have created 425 jobs directly and 1,000 indirectly.