Public money should not prop up asbestos mining – by Alana Wilson (Winnipeg Free Press – July 17, 2012)

Alana Wilson is senior research analyst in the Fraser Institute’s global centre for mining studies

Canada’s mining industry is globally competitive, and has long succeeded without much in the way of government subsidies. It even thrived in the last recession by responding to market demand. Yet instead of letting markets drive mining investment in Quebec, the provincial government is bailing out the asbestos industry using taxpayer money — and this for a product that is harmful to human health.

In recent years, market demand for chrysotile asbestos produced in Canada shrunk dramatically which lead to a halt of chrysotile mining. But instead of letting mines stay closed, taxpayer funds will reopen an unprofitable chrysotile mine.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest recently approved a $58 million loan to allow the closed Jeffrey asbestos mine to reopen. Even before the announced bailout, the mine struggled and operated infrequently in recent years. All other Canadian asbestos mines have closed; the last one was shuttered in November.

The demise of Canada’s asbestos industry reflects a declining demand for asbestos, driven by health concerns. The World Health Organization estimates 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis from exposure to asbestos in their workplace. Although chrysotile, the type of asbestos mined in Quebec, is less harmful than other types, the WHO considers all asbestos carcinogenic.

Even if chrysotile can be safely mined in Canada, the European Union and more than 40 countries have banned it. Whether or not the health concerns are real, the global market has shrunk.

Yet governments refused to stop spending our money. Between 1984 and 1997, Ottawa provided nearly $20 million to the Chrysotile Institute, a not-for-profit organization that provides training and promotes the use of chrysotile internationally. Government support came in the form of $250,000 per year to the institute and an additional $10,000 per year for representatives to attend workshops and conferences. The feds spent about $575,000 in a failed bid to have the World Trade Organization overturn France’s ban on asbestos.

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