Giving asbestos new life – by Graeme Hamilton and Nicolas Van Praet (National Post – September 29, 2011)

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He has been portrayed as a monster, a businessman with impeccable political connections who sells a product so dangerous it has been banned in Europe and largely shunned on this continent.

But Baljit Singh Chadha says he is simply aiming to make some money while helping the poor improve their lives. And it looks like the Quebec government is about to back him up.

Mr. Chadha is a Montreal entrepreneur and the new face of the asbestos industry in Canada. After acting as the sales agent in India to Quebec’s Jeffrey asbestos mine for years, he has put together a plan to buy the bankrupt business and give it new life.

The Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest has committed $58-million in loan guarantees to relaunch the mine, provided Mr. Chadha can show the project can turn a profit, that the asbestos will be used safely in importing countries and that he can find private investors willing to put $25-million into the plan.

A government spokesman said Wednesday said the only condition remaining to fulfill is the outside investment.

Mr. Chadha said he has letters of intent from unnamed investors in three countries to put up the equity. He is scheduled to make his case before department officials this week. A final decision is expected as early as next week.

Despite the significant opposition to asbestos mining from the medical community and prominent political leaders who charge the cancer-causing mineral can’t be used without causing harm, Quebec has historically supported the industry and its two asbestos mines. A bitter strike by 5,000 workers at Jeffrey in 1949 was a pivotal event that altered politics in the province and presaged the Quiet Revolution. The federal government also backs its export.

Critics say the endorsement is an international embarrassment for Canada. But barring any sudden reversal, Mr. Chadha appears set to resurrect the mine, located, about 125 kilometres east of Montreal.

What’s so intriguing about his involvement in asbestos, however, is simply this: He doesn’t need the controversy.

A well-connected Liberal and member of Canada’s Privy Council, Mr. Chadha is also a rich man and prominent Sikh community leader. Why would he risk his reputation to become a key player in one of the most despised sectors worldwide? Why would he even go so far as to seek personal meetings with the industry’s most vocal adversaries as he did this week?

During an interview this week at the Montreal headquarters of his trading company, Balcorp Ltd., Mr. Chadha acknowledged he is dealing in a difficult product. Even his own family members and prospective employees need to be persuaded he is doing the right thing, he said.

“But I have become more convinced that what we are doing is not wrong. In fact, I have become more determined because all of this unnecessary noise and personal attacks [against me] … We are not the devil as people are portraying us,” he said.

His arguments do not wash with asbestos opponents, a growing group that now includes the Canadian Medical Association, Quebec’s 18 directors of public health and the Canadian Cancer Society.

New Democrat MP Pat Martin, one of the industry’s most strident critics, said he met with Mr. Chadha Monday in Ottawa as a courtesy. But nothing he heard changed his mind about the safety of asbestos exports. “It’s just not plausible” that Balcorp will be able to monitor the conditions under which the vast amounts of asbestos to be mined at Jeffrey are used in the developing world, Mr. Martin said.

“The asbestos cartel is the tobacco industry’s evil twin. They lie, and they promote junk science,” he said. He called the proposed loan guarantee for the project “corporate welfare for corporate serial killers.”

Jeffrey mines a form of asbestos known as chrysotile, which its proponents claim is safer than other asbestos varieties. Nevertheless, the European Union has banned it and North America has also largely shunned it. The main markets for the mineral are India, Vietnam and China, where for years buyers have used it to make inexpensive roof sheeting and pipes. Most railway station roofs and army barracks in India are made with asbestos-reinforced cement, for example. Demand is growing by 5% to 15% a year, according to estimates.

“All these countries are well aware of the risks that are there,” Mr. Chadha said. “We all admit and we say that it is a carcinogen. It is a hazardous product. But it can be handled safely.”

Mr. Chadha, 59, said barely 10% of his business revenue currently comes from selling asbestos produced by Jeffrey. Most of his sales come from Canadian-produced food stuffs that he sells overseas, primarily nuts, dried fruits and beans.

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