The Town Called “Asbestos”
A hitchhiker stuck his thump out on the shoulder of Route 112. He was an old man. Gray hair, glasses and a blue flannel shirt.
Not likely to kill.
I pulled over. Claudia and Genevieve were asleep in the back.
“Bonjour, where are you going?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s a ways up, a little more than an hour.”
“Asbestos is a town?” I said. “Is it on the way to Sherbrooke?”
“Then hop in my friend.”
His name was Jean René. He was easy going, but didn’t talk much. Just gave directions.
He took us through an area with large, mountain-size piles of gray rock. They looked like quarries. The word “LIBERTY” was written in big letters on the largest pile. Someone had taken time to dig those letters into the gravel. “LIBERTY.” For all the drivers on Route 112 to see.
We kept going and a road sign read “Thetford Mines.”
“Mines?” I said. “Hey, Jean René, do you know what they mine here?”
Asbestos, a known hazardous material – banned in almost 60 countries – is being excavated and exported here in “environmentally friendly,” electric car pioneering, ultra-progressive Quebec.
It’s very likely to kill.
Quebec is the only province that mines asbestos and it all happens on the Appalachian foothills, just three hours east of Montreal. The asbestos industry rakes in $100 million a year, which is relatively small for resource extraction, but it makes a significant impact locally and abroad.
- In 2008, Quebec was the fifth largest asbestos producer in the world, behind Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Brazil.
- Quebec exports 95 percent of its asbestos, mostly to Asia and poor countries.
- The World Health Organization estimates more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure.
- Here in Quebec, 58 people died from asbestos-related illnesses in 2008 alone.
All this is happening as the Canadian government spends $863 million to remove asbestos from its parliamentary buildings in Ottawa. The hypocrisy is so blatant even The Daily Show had to take a few jabs.
Government officials claim chrysotile (the type of asbestos produced in Quebec) is not dangerous when handled properly. They also say the industry creates hundreds of jobs in central Quebec.
Canada is the only G8 nation fighting to keep chrysotile off the U.N.’s list of hazardous materials known as the Rotterdam Convention. In doing so, Canada joins Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Vietnam as the treaty’s few dissidents.
Dedication to asbestos mining is strong even as global demand plummets.
But it’s not just demand. Production is also in decline at Thetford Mines. Right now, the Quebec provincial government is thinking about helping the waning industry with a $5 million loan guarantee. A boost that would expand the mines.
The whole thing is maddening, especially for the health officials, human rights activists and environmentalists who have been working to halt asbestos production for over a century.
Seems like the industry won’t die until it kills itself.
1. The reason to keep the asbestos industry alive cannot be jobs because it only employs about 400 people in Quebec. There are just two mines and only one stays open year-round.
2. Even if asbestos is “handled safely” during installation (which is hard to imagine) no amount of safe-handling can prevent earthquakes and other uncontrollable events. As Stephen Spencer Davis puts it:
“When buildings crumble, asbestos is released into the air. A good example is the World Trade Center. The first 40 floors of the towers were full of asbestos, which consequently, engulfed lower Manhattan when the buildings collapsed. [Causing thousands of New Yorkers to suffer lung-related problems.]”
3. Asbestos production harms Canada’s global image – something that is already fragile as proved by the nation’s failure to win a seat on the U.N.’s Security Council.
Therefore, if the asbestos industry is deadly, bad for public relations, creates few jobs, and shrinks with time, there is only one answer for its existence:
The Canadian government is easy to buy.
It’s that simple. The industry would rather pay off politicians in Ottawa and Quebec than redirect its business towards other, less poisonous resources. Resources with higher global demand and higher long-term profits.
But capitalism lives in the short-term. I guess it’s easier to keep doing things the old way and pray for government loans to bolster impractical business plans.
Of course, Jean René didn’t tell me any of this. He didn’t like to talk. I had to find out for myself.
We reached the town called Asbestos and I let him out near a gas station. He said a friend would pick him up there. I said goodbye to Jean René and drove towards Sherbrooke.
Along the way I passed more large piles of gray rock. They looked just like the ones in Thetford Mines. I imagined the word “LIBERTY” again. The way it was written on the asbestos mine. What did the word mean to the people that put it there?
Liberty as in “freedom for all”?
Liberty to sell whatever you want, regardless of the consequences?
© Diego Cupolo 2011