FEATURE ARTICLE: The Canadian asbestos legacy

Here in the UK, most of the dangers of asbestos exposure you can think of probably exist in buildings. Broken AIB panels, corrugated cement roofs irresponsibly disposed of, that sort of thing. Longer memories may conjure images of factories handling raw chrysotile, or hosing the interior of ships in dockyards with pure asbestos coating.

One thing we don’t often imagine is the risks associated with living next to an open pit asbestos mine. If that is one of the scenarios that sprung to mind for you, then you’ve probably lived in Russia, South Africa or Canada.

Just last December, Canada took the big step of joining over fifty other countries in banning asbestos (with a time-limited exemption for the chlor-alkali industry until the end of 2029). While their neighbours to the south seem to be shifting in the opposite direction, the Canadian government saw the county’s long, slow journey towards an asbestos ban come to an end.

Canadian resistance to an asbestos ban has been understandable in the past. In the early 1900s, Canada produced about 85% of the world’s asbestos. In 1973, Canadian annual asbestos production peaked at 1.69 million metric tons. However, as the evidence linking asbestos to lung disease became ever more difficult to ignore, the industry entered a gradual decline.

It certainly wasn’t going down without a fight. Whereas the UK banned asbestos products in 2001, Canada’s last two asbestos mines did not stop operating until 2011. Even after that, in 2012 the Quebec government promised a $58 million loan to get the Jeffrey mine operating again for another 20 years.

This was only prevented because the government changed hands in the provincial election that year, and the newly elected Parti Québécois cancelled the loan in accordance with their campaign promise.

After 130 years of production, Canada’s asbestos mines (which had once been considered so valuable that, during the first world war, the U.S. military had drawn up plans to enter Quebec and defend them if Canada fell under German control) sat idle.

The Jeffrey mine is in the town of Asbestos, Quebec, about 80 miles east of Montreal. Many of the residents – especially the older generation – are proud of the town’s name and heritage. There’s a microbrewery with beer names such as “La Mineur” (“The Miner”) and “L’Or Blanc” (“White Gold”).

To others, the once-mighty mine that gave the town its identity is known simply as “the hole.” 2km wide and 350m deep, it’s certainly difficult to ignore. In 2016, local politicians started to talk about changing the town name in order to make it more appealing to new business.

The idea of relaxing in a hot tub just a few hundred meters from an open pit asbestos mine might not appeal to many of us. But as the photo above shows, that’s a reality for the people of Asbestos, QC.

Many of them lament the closure of the mine. Francesco Spertini, a retired geologist who spent 32 years working in the mine, told Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail “It’s sad, the end of the mine. Usually, the mine ends when the material is exhausted, but that’s not the case here”, adding that he considers asbestos can be safe if properly handled.

(To be fair, that’s a much more informed view than those of some of his counterparts in the town of Asbest in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia, who in this video opine that asbestos is only dangerous if you are afraid of it.)

Yet even as the last bastion of the ‘magic mineral’ concedes defeat and looks in a new direction for its future, the fight to keep people safe from asbestos is still going, albeit in a surprising new arena.

As well as the gaping hole in the earth – now partially flooded and inhabited almost exclusively by turkey vultures – another sign of the mine’s legacy in Asbestos are the ‘tailings’. These are the ore residues left behind by all mining operations. In some parts of the town, these tailings form hills that dwarf the houses.

The amount of asbestos which remains in these residues depends very much on who you ask. A body of public health officials issued a warning that the tailings can contain up to 40% asbestos fibres. However, Joël Fournier, who holds a PhD in electrochemistry from Université de Sherbrooke, disputes this:

“People who said that are insulting the intelligence of people who extracted asbestos. They didn’t leave behind 40 per cent asbestos. They were not idiots. They didn’t even have that much in the mother rock. It’s impossible.”

If you had been assuming that the plan for the future was to leave these piles of residues well alone or to cover them over with earth and vegetation as some have suggested, this questions may seem somewhat academic.

But what Fournier is proposing involves scooping up great quantities of the tailing with a backhoe digger. He is the president of a Quebec based company called Alliance Magnesium Inc. (AMI) and claims to have developed a groundbreaking technology to transform those mountains into two valuable materials: magnesium, a lightweight metal, and amorphous silica, which can be used to strengthen concrete. The process also destroys the asbestos fibres.

The Magnesium, in particular, is potentially big business. Car manufacturers increasingly look to use it as an alternative to aluminium and steel, since it is lighter and helps them achieve their fuel efficiency targets.

So could this be a potential next step for the town of Asbestos? The government seems keen on the idea. Quebec has provided a $17.5 million loan and has taken out an equity interest of $13.4 million, while the federal government announced a $12 million investment.

As you might imagine, others are more concerned about the consequences of disturbing these giant piles of asbestos mining waste. Dr Philippe Lessard, regional director of public health for the Chaudière-Appalaches region, had this warning for the Montreal Gazette:

“The risk I see … is that as soon as we start to manipulate and disturb these residues, we are sending these fibres into the air, and they will circulate with the wind and settle everywhere, near the homes and the population.”

While not opposed to the magnesium extraction operation per se, Lessard is concerned that by the time a proper public consultation can be held to inform the public of the potential risks, the project will be too far advanced for the government to consider halting it.

The Canadian Government’s appetite to exploit and profit from these residues seems to be great. Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna wrote a letter to the public health directors, saying “I am … satisfied that these proposed regulations, along with existing provincial controls, will address the health risks associated with asbestos mining residues.”

So the Canadian asbestos narrative is still being written, it seems. In a region that has been so dependant on asbestos production in the past, it is unsurprising that there would be enthusiasm for an alternative way of making money from the husks of the former industry.

Yet if there’s one thing that the magnesium extract operation has in common with the manufacture of asbestos materials, it is that both of them were initially sold as a miracle development with no potential downside. It remains to be seen whether this latest discovery is what it claims to be, or whether it is the first chapter of a story that ends in further asbestos-related deaths and expensive compensation payouts.

Author: Oliver Lea, Asbestos Analyst