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Digging in: The politics of asbestos mining
ASBESTOS, QUE. AND OTTAWA – Donald Nicholls remembers when the white fibres from the open pit mine that still dominates this town blanketed its streets like snow.
“You could leave tracks from the dust that fell overnight,” said Mr. Nicholls who started working in the mine fresh out of high school back in 1950. “It was much, much worse back then.”
He’s slowly dying of asbestosis, a respiratory disease brought on by inhaling those white particles. But like almost everyone else in town, the 79-year-old supports the reopening of the mine, allowing Canada to ramp up its export of chrysotile asbestos – a variant of the very mineral that is killing him.
In the face of widespread international hostility, Canada too has become an unabashed proponent of exporting a product linked to lung disease and cancer. The Conservative government’s decision last week to block an international agreement to restrict the sale of chrysotile incited condemnation around the world and across the country.
The Canadian Cancer Society called it an “unethical decision” that left it “shocked and embarrassed.”
So far, none of this appears to faze the Prime Minister. Asked about the backlash, his spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, would not explain Mr. Harper’s thinking on the issue. “The government’s policy position is clear,” he said in an e-mail.
Conservatives and the mine industry insist chrysotile – white asbestos used mainly to reinforce cement – is safe if handled properly, compared to the much more toxic brown asbestos used in insulation.
Beyond that, it’s a position the Tories don’t want to talk about or explain.
On the face it, the economics of the struggling industry in terms of jobs and exports hardly seems worth the international black eye. Those who see crass politics at play point to the electoral map. The surprise wave that elected 59 NDP MPs in Quebec reduced the Conservative base to a group of five ridings south of the St. Lawrence that includes the asbestos region.
Conservatives campaigned as defenders of Quebec’s regional interests. Supporting asbestos fits with that theme.
Meanwhile, many in Asbestos, a town of 7,000 people 180 kilometres east of Montreal, feel they are under siege.
“They say we are exporting death, but that is not true,” said Bernard Coulombe, the owner of the Jeffrey Mine and a tireless booster of its products. “They treat it like it was anthrax. If it was really as dangerous as they say it is, we’d all be lying dead in the streets. Why is the world against us?”
Last month, Mr. Coulombe himself was savagely skewered on Jon Stewart’s much-watched The Daily Show, called a “douchebag” and told that the word “asbestos” in English means “slow, hacking death.”
The World Health Organization and a slew of international scientists have declared that exposure to all forms of asbestos poses too great a risk for workers and the public.
Closer to home, a coalition of Quebec environmental groups last week called for a shutdown of the mines here and in nearby Thetford Mines that are at “the root of an epidemic of deaths around the world.”
Instead, the Quebec Liberal government has given Mr. Coulombe a $58-million loan guarantee to help find new investors.
And on June 24, the federal Conservative government sided with Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan at a summit in Switzerland to successfully block the inclusion of asbestos on a United Nations list of hazardous materials.
“We don’t want to be on a banned list, that would bring shame for us,” said Mr. Coulombe, who started as an engineer in the mine in the 1960s and bought the declining operation in 1991 with hopes of bringing back its glory days of earlier decades.
Much stricter safety controls are in place in the Canadian mines today, but industry opponents say all Canada has done is export its problems – to countries like India where workplace standards for health and safety can be negligible.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Globe and Mail website: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/even-the-dying-and-the-doctor-support-chrysotile-mining-in-asbestos/article2084237/page2/