Canada’s asbestos industry on its last legs – by Bertrand Marotte (Globe and Mail – January 5, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

MONTREAL— The “miracle fibre” that helped drive Quebec’s economy for more than a century now represents an industry near death, despite government efforts to keep it afloat.

In its heyday in the mid-1960s, Canada’s asbestos industry employed thousands and produced about 40 per cent of the world’s supply of the silky-white product known for its resistance to fire, rust and rot. It was used widely in construction throughout North America, including at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

Now, it’s known more for being ripped out of walls as a danger to public health. Many developed nations have banned it outright, and critics warn it’s impossible to ensure its safe use in developing countries. These concerns over a known carcinogen have put the industry on its last legs.

Production at one mine has been halted until it can get refinancing, and another miner – Thetford Mines, Que.-based LAB Chrysotile –filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, leaving no active operations in Canada.

Yet a market still exists in the developing economies, and industry officials say chrysotile asbestos – popular in countries such as India and Indonesia as a reinforcing agent in cement products – is safe when used properly.

Proponents insist it has a glowing future in global markets, despite growing international pressure on the Canadian and Quebec governments to cease financial and political backing of the industry amid mounting evidence of asbestos’s health hazards.

“I’m convinced we can relaunch the mine. We’re going to push for a plan of action, talk to all the players,” said a determined Simon Dupéré, president of LAB Chrysotile, which announced Wednesday it had to declare bankruptcy after a halt in production last October led to mounting fixed costs with no revenue to offset them.

The company’s Lac d’Amiante mine in Quebec’s Eastern Townships employs about 350 people.

The mineral’s growing pariah status – it’s been singled out by medical and health authorities around the world as a major carcinogen and contributor to lung disease, and has been banned in dozens of countries – doesn’t phase Mr. Dupéré.

“We’ve been fighting [the negative publicity]. I’m convinced that this product can – and is – used in a safe fashion,” he said. “It’s prized in many places as a low-cost infrastructure-building material.”

He aims to have the operations back up and running “as quickly as possible” and isn’t relying on government help, unlike the Jeffrey Mine, which has been struggling for months to clinch a new financing deal backstopped by Quebec.

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