Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebec pumps $58M into asbestos industry

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ASBESTOS, Que. -- Canada's beleaguered asbestos industry, which has been a target of activists who link its product to cancer, has been given a $58-million lease on life by the Quebec government.

While the industry has appeared on the brink of collapse, Friday's long-rumoured provincial loan will cover more than two-thirds of the cost of renovating and reopening the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Que. -- a move that could keep production going for 20 years.

Critics here and abroad have called it immoral for Canada to be exporting the substance to developing countries where safety standards are suspect.

One of the last two remaining asbestos facilities in Canada, Jeffrey Mine suspended production last year due to financial problems. The other mine, Lac d'amiante du Canada in nearby Thetford Mines, shut down shortly afterward but some proponents hope it can be revived as well.

At its peak, the Canadian asbestos industry helped create entire towns and dominated international production of the mineral used in fireproofing and insulation.

The deal to refurbish Jeffrey Mine will see private investors, led by Balcorp Ltd., kick in another $25 million. The owners will have to provide royalties along with annual fees that, over time, will see $7.5 million put aside to diversify the region's economy.

The announcement was made before an applauding crowd of around 700 townsfolk. Speculation about the reopening has drawn attention in international media including the New York Times, which last year ran a long feature on, "a town called Asbestos."

Balcorp president Baljit Chadha also indicated last year he was close to securing the funding from an international consortium of investors.

"This is excellent news for the city of Asbestos and for the region," said Yvon Vallières, the local MNA and cabinet minister who is retiring from politics.

"The reopening of the mine will not only create 425 full-time jobs, especially for young people, but it will also contribute to development in Asbestos, a one-industry town."

He cited predictions that worldwide demand for asbestos would increase -- especially in India -- while the supply would drop. He said an external audit with a respected firm would monitor whether the material was being handled safely by Jeffrey's foreign customers.

The announcement came as rumours swirled about a possible provincial election in September.

Industry proponents insist asbestos can be used safely if it is handled properly and say the chrysotile asbestos manufactured at the Jeffrey Mine is not as dangerous as other forms of the material.

Dr. Yves Bonnier Viger, president of an association of Quebec medical specialists, criticized the move.

"It makes me very sad," he said. "It shows an insensitivity to the scientific data and a lack of respect for the health and well-being of the population."

He and his colleagues will lobby the government to reverse its decision.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 A20

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