Quebec asbestos project prompts safety protests

“Quebec asbestos project prompts safety protests”
By Bernard Simon in Toronto, Financial Times

Published: November 24 2010 19:25 | Last updated: November 24 2010 19:25

An attempt by Indian and other investors to revive a big Canadian asbestos mine has run into a storm of protest from health and environmental groups.

Activists are preparing demonstrations in London and Montreal in early December to persuade the Quebec government not to approve C$58m ($57m) in loan guarantees needed to convert the Jeffrey mine from an open-pit to an underground operation. The open-pit reserves are almost exhausted but the deeper deposits are among the biggest in the world.

Expansion would boost production from the 100-year-old mine from an estimated 15,000 tonnes this year to 180,000 tonnes in 2012 and an eventual capacity of 260,000 tonnes, or about 10 per cent of global production.

Canada is the world’s fifth-biggest asbestos producer after Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Brazil. Output is rising sharply in Indonesia and Vietnam.

Jeffrey and one other remaining Quebec mine produce chrysotile, or white asbestos, used mainly to reinforce cement used for water pipes and other building materials.

The asbestos industry contends that chrysotile is less dangerous than blue asbestos, also known as amphibole asbestos, the type associated most closely with pneumoconiosis and other lung diseases.

While chrysotile is widely classified as a hazardous substance, the industry maintains that in common with many other hazardous materials, it can be used safely if handled properly.

Bernard Coulombe, Jeffrey’s chief executive and controlling shareholder, said: “We have all the proof in the world that we are operating in very safe conditions, and so are our customers.”

Noting that his son is the mine’s chief plumber, Mr Coulombe added: “I would not let my son work at a mine that was dangerous for him.”

However, anti-asbestos lobbyists argue that chrysotile poses health hazards and accuse Canada of allowing exports of a material that is subject to stringent restrictions at home.

Laurie Kazan-Allen, an activist, said: “We’re trying to bring to the attention of the Quebec people what the effect will be on India and the Philippines of this new mine. People in Quebec have not been told the truth of how these products are used.”

The prospective buyers of the mine are led by Baljit Chadha, a Montreal-based financier of Indian extraction. The group also includes investors based in India. According to an adviser to the group, the buyers have undertaken to sell only to large customers that are able to take the necessary health precautions, and to conduct an annual audit of their practices.

Quebec’s economic development ministry said it was analysing the loan guarantee request. Local mayors and unions have generally supported the expansion.

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