Brazil’s Asbestos Rubicon
Although Italy’s conviction of asbestos executives from Eternit companies in Europe has had worldwide repercussions, the February 13th judgment could well be Brazil’s asbestos rubicon, a point from which there is no turning back.
In the aftermath of the verdict, Brazilian asbestos lobbyists began a damage limitation exercise. On February 17th, the Brazilian Eternit Group issued a press release stating “ Eternit S.A. is a locally-owned, publicly traded company… and bears no relation to Eternit in other countries, including Italy.”
The Brazilian stock market remained impervious to Eternit S.A.’s reassurances and on three consecutive days after the Italian judgment was handed down, Eternit’s share value fell. No doubt Brazilian investors were also cognizant of the increasing support in Brazil for a national asbestos ban. There are currently asbestos bans in five states, with a state ban in Paraná on the cards. A court case due to start shortly before the Supreme Court could well pave the way for a comprehensive ban being adopted in Brazil.
Brazilian prosecutors, who closely followed developments in Turin, regard the 128-page verdict of the Turin criminal court as a precedent to be used in on-going actions in Brazil. In light of this, executives from Eternit S.A. and other Brazilian asbestos companies might one day find themselves in the dock, charged with similar offenses to those faced by their European counterparts. Should they be convicted by Brazilian authorities of crimes against Brazilian citizens, it is likely they too will face incarceration.
Eternit Asbestos Executives Condemned!
No one slept the night before the February 13th verdict (see: lead-up to the verdict announcement).
The tension in the Turin courtroom had a physical presence even as people chatted amongst themselves in the minutes before the proceedings began.
The three judges entered the main court and silence fell. The initial minutes were taken up by some procedural aspects and then it was announced that the reading of the verdict would begin at 1:15 p.m.
So, we waited… and waited... and waited. Some people went in search of coffee machines, some people bit their nails and some people chatted. A delegation of miners who were part of a big contingent of asbestos victims from France seized the occasion to present Romana Blasotti Pavesi, the head of the Casale Monferrato victims’ association, with a miners’ lamp as a symbol of her leadership in the struggle for justice.
During the interval, I was taken to meet with Public Prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, the man most people credit with pioneering this historic case, and present him with a copy of the new publication: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial (see this link, on IBAS website, for the online version: http://ibasecretariat.org/eternit-great-asbestos-trial-toc.htm).
He seemed very calm in those hours before the verdict was given. I took that as a good sign.
Then as scheduled the judges returned. They stood as they read the three-hour verdict . As we heard the English translator say “In the name of the Italian people, the Turin criminal court declares the defendants Schmidheiny and De Cartier guilty,” the burden of expectation which had been pressing down on us all dissipated. The skies cleared and the sun shone brightly in the courtrooms where victims, their family members, supporters and consultants were gathered.
Listen to the verdict interpreted into English on: http://www.livestream.com/greenbox_/video?clipId=pla_0c7ba848-010d-4338-9afe-e6f75fa45c5d.
The 16 year sentences handed down for both defendants swiftly followed the guilty verdict. At that moment, I felt such pride in what the people of Casale Monferrato had achieved. Not only for their loved ones, their friends and their neighbours but for asbestos victims all over the world whose lives had counted for nothing in Eternit’s pursuit of profit.
With modern technology, the news spread worldwide in minutes. Coverage in Italy was massive and national newspapers ran front page stories of the verdict with TV coverage on all channels.
In Canada, speculation was rife about the implications of this trial for asbestos propagandists and executives in Quebec. In France, attempts to replicate the Turin process are being made but success has not yet to be achieved. Elsewhere, ban asbestos campaigners look on in awe at what has happened in Italy.
February 13 was a great day for the people of Casale Monferrato and the other Italian towns where Eternit’s operations contaminated workers and the community. It is a historic victory that will endure as a testament to the capacity of human beings to achieve justice in the face of overwhelming odds. A victory of enormous proportions; a victory which belongs to us all.
Parliamentary Asbestos Debate
For nearly half an hour last night, British MPs debated the issues of asbestos contamination in schools during an adjournment debate obtained by Labour MP Ian Lavery (see: Adjournment debate February 7, 2012: Columns 277 – 284).During the debate, cross-party concern was expressed by Parliamentarians from England and Northern Ireland regarding the “serious situation facing the nation’s schools,” the risk posed by asbestos to the health of pupils, teachers, cleaners and administrators and the failure of successive governments to get to grips with the scale and nature of the problem.
MPs called for the “phased removal of asbestos in a strategic manner” from schools.” MP Lavery asked:
“Does the minister agree that children should have the same rights as adults in an asbestos environment? Those rights could reasonably be exercised through parents, guardians and teachers... does the Minister accept that the details of asbestos incidents in schools need to be collated centrally and open to public and internal scrutiny, so that the effectiveness of the Health and Safety Executive, Department of Education and local authority asbestos management policies can be assessed?”
The answers provided by Nick Gibb, Minister of State, Department for Education, was a full ten minutes of political flim-flam. The priority for this Government, the Minister said, is to “ensure the safety of staff and pupils at school.” The best way to do that is… to do nothing. All will be well… everything is under control… or, in other words, carry on killing
The Minister’s carefully constructed defense of the current regime was a diversionary tactic intended to downplay the public condemnation of the scandal which has been stimulated by this week’s release of a parliamentary publication entitled Asbestos in Schools – the Need for Action.
A government prepared to shell out millions to puff up the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is not prepared to take vital measures to protect future generations from the asbestos hazard. I bet if the children of cabinet members went to State schools, there would be a lot more concern about this problem but what do millionaire politicians know about life in these asbestos-riddled facilities? Don’t know and don’t care about sums it up.
Two Women, Two Positions on Asbestos
Roshi Chadha and Silvano Mossano have very different takes on the asbestos reality of the 21st century. Chadha, a Canadian asbestos promoter, is linked to an aggressive campaign to pour millions of tax dollars into the development of new asbestos mining resources in Quebec. Italian journalist Mossano, the wife of a man dying from asbestos cancer, is otherwise engaged; her professional career has been dominated by efforts to expose her country’s asbestos scandal.
On January 29, Chadha issued a public statement announcing her intention to suspend her good works for Canadian charities; her affiliation with the Canadian Red Cross, McGill University and St. Mary’s Hospital has been widely condemned by asbestos victims’ and civil society groups in Canada and abroad (see: article by Gazette Environment Reporter Michelle Lalonde, February 1). As she was doing so, thousands of miles away, Mossano was putting the finishing touches on her play, Malapolvere (bad dust) which opened in Turin to a full house at the Gobetti Theatre two nights later. The play, a monologue, was performed by Luciana Curino, a well-known Italian actress; the substance of the drama is the 1,800 missing people, asbestos dead, from Casale Monferrato, the town which was home to the Eternit asbestos-cement factory. The Casale deaths are just the tip of the iceberg; throughout the world so many lives have been sacrificed to asbestos. It is unconscionable that people like Chadha are willing to see this humanitarian disaster continue so long as there are profits to be made.
Tories Bully, Victims Die
Even as the Tory-led UK Government continues its condemnation of the negative impact of the country’s “monster” health and safety regime on the economy (See: PM David Cameron attacks health and safety 'monster'; January 5, 2012), its own epidemiological data has revealed the consequences of lax regulation of workplace hazards.
A report released by the Health and Safety Executive weeks before Prime Minister David Cameron declared war on occupational safeguards documented the inexorable national rise of asbestos cancer; according to the latest available data, in 2009 there were 2,321 deaths from mesothelioma, of which 1,933 (83%) were male and 388 (17%) were female (Mesothelioma mortality in Great Britain 1968-2009).
To understand the human consequences of the government’s desire to revert to the “good old days” of laissez-faire capitalism, it is informative to look at how mesothelioma mortality has risen over recent decades: in 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 there were respectively 159, 434, 909, 1615 and 2321 British mesothelioma deaths.
In other words, in the last forty years the national incidence of just one type of asbestos-related disease has increased by almost 15 times. Despite the fact that asbestos has been banned in the UK, millions of tonnes remain within the infrastructure. In 2011, the UK Government was indicted by EU authorities for non-compliance with occupational asbestos guidelines, resources for the body tasked with protecting occupational safety were slashed and measures were progressed through Parliament which might shut-down asbestos victims’ support groups throughout the country. The current economic crisis certainly has a silver lining for the Tories, a party known for its anti-union and anti-labor bias.
Illogical and deadly: Canada’s asbestos mind-set
When it comes to asbestos, don’t look to Canada for any logical or cohesive policy. Even as the Canadian Red Cross was whitewashing the credentials of its “valued member,” asbestos trader Roshi Chadha, McGill University, another organization she is associated with, remains “schtum” on its relationship with the Montrealer.
Unlike the WHO, the ILO and other independent organizations, McGill seems unconcerned about the asbestos hazard. Indeed, one might even say the university is embracing it – why else would it be boasting of its plans to use asbestos-cement drainage pipes, containing up to 13% asbestos, at the new $2.5 billion McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) (See: Asbestos-free hospital no pipe dream by A. Derfel [accessed January 13, 2012]). In a statement released last month, MUHC officials claimed that “There will be no asbestos fibres circulating in the air at the MUHC.” As if this were ever going to be a realistic proposition; like everywhere else in the world, pipes in Montreal break, age and leak. According to an MUHC spokesperson “The (asbestos) fibres are not brittle, and therefore pose no risk of emission of particles in the air.” As if!
A different decision has been taken by the consortium building Montreal University’s superhosptial which has publicly stated that “there will be no asbestos anywhere in the research centre.” Two hospitals, two decisions – guess which one has the long-term commercial association with the Canadian asbestos industry?
New Year’s Thoughts
As 2012 dawned, developments on three continents indicate that progress is being made in the campaign to tackle the global asbestos scandal. The intervention of the Italian Minister of Health in the debacle over a potential deal between asbestos defendant Stephan Schmidheiny and the town of Casale Monferrato has proved pivotal. Impending ministerial level discussions will hopefully resolve the difficulties caused by the multimillion euro offer made by Schmidheiny’s lawyers. At this very moment, asbestos victims’ campaigners in Casale Monferrato and their supporters are preparing for a day of action which will culminate with a concert tonight (January 7) to reaffirm civic solidarity with the victims’ cause.
In Brazil, Estado de São Paulo, a daily Brazilian broadsheet, and Época magazine have this week predicted that a Brazilian ban on asbestos will be implemented in 2012. Journalists writing for these publications reported that the Attorney General has asked the Supreme Court to declare as unconstitutional the law (n.º 9.055/95) which allows the “controlled use of asbestos.”
News that Belgian asbestos victim Eric Jonckheere had written to Canada’s Prime Minister and Quebec’s Premier urging them to ban asbestos was confirmed in a January 4 interview with Radio Canada. There is “no safe use of asbestos,” Mr. Jonckheere told the Canadian interviewer. When asked to respond to asbestos propaganda spouted by lobbyist Guy Versailles, from Balcorp Ltd., Jonckheere said all types of asbestos can kill. The asbestos which killed four members of his family came from Canada; it is time, he said, for the killing to stop.
Like mushrooms, the asbestos industry can only flourish in the dark. Once exposed to the light of day, the propaganda and ruthless machinations of the asbestos industrialists are revealed for all to see. Society cannot condone or allow this trade to continue.
Redemption in Quebec?
The Quebec Government is expected to issue its decision regarding support for a new asbestos mine within days. The fact that negotiations are on-going between Canada and India for a deal to end import duty on Canadian asbestos presupposes that Canada will have asbestos to export to India. At the moment it has none as the last two mines have run out of asbestos. So, the trade negotiations are a clear indication that the funds needed for the mining project have already been approved.
A year ago the Asia–Quebec Solidarity delegation went to Quebec to appeal directly to the population, government officials, trade unionists and others to stop the export of asbestos to Asian countries. Amongst the 7 members of this delegation was asbestos cancer sufferer Rachel Lee. Mrs. Lee died yesterday in a Korean hospital surrounded by her family.
Today, a letter has been sent to Minister Gignac reminding him of his meeting on December 9, 2010 with Mrs. Lee and the attack made on her by Jacques Dunnigan, someone who has had a long association with the Canadian asbestos industry. Dunnigan accused Mrs. Lee and the Asian delegation of trickery, “falsely saying that she was not really suffering from mesothelioma.” The letter sent to the Minister requests that he “restore the honour of Quebec…(and) honour the appeal made to you by Rachel Lee on behalf of asbestos victims around the world and not fund the Jeffrey mine.”
In the run-up to Christmas such a decision, would be very welcome. It is the honorable thing to do.
Infamous Decision by Town Council
Representatives of the Italian town of Casale Monferrato cowered into the early hours of December 17 in the town hall to avoid angry protesters surrounding the building. The demonstrators had brought their banners and anger with them to express outrage at the betrayal by Mayor Demezzi and the Council who voted on Friday night (December 16) to accept a deal worth €18.3 million to settle town’s lawsuit against former asbestos executive Stephan Schmidheiny. See: Link to Update from Casale Monferrato.
This act of treachery dishonours a town which had become a beacon of hope for so many asbestos victims around the world. It has, as one Italian journalist written, shattered the social contract forged between the town’s asbestos-injured and their elected representatives – a contract which had progressed the quest to obtain justice for the thousands who had been injured by exposure to Eternit asbestos.
The honorable men and women who have devoted their lives to the campaign for justice need to know that our thoughts are with them at this dark hour. Please take a few minutes to send expressions of solidarity to the leaders of the asbestos victims in Casale Monferrato. Please send your messages by email to:
The verdict in the case against Schmidheiny and his co-defendant is expected on February 13, 2011. It is unclear at this time how this deal will impact on the legal proceedings.
The Mother of all Betrayals
If things proceed as expected, tomorrow night the town council of Casale Monferrato will rubber-stamp an offer worth up to €20 million. The money will be handed over to buy the town’s silence. The deal will bring to an end Casale’s support for the grass-roots campaign mounted by victims poisoned by Eternit asbestos. See: Justice for Sale? and Surprise Moves by Schmidheiny’s Lawyers
The criminal trial in Turin of two former Eternit executives is a landmark in the global fight against asbestos; the significance of the proceedings has resulted in massive media coverage and huge international attention. The 11th hour offer by Stephan Schmidheiny, termed a “transparent ploy” by one observer, could impact on the court’s verdict; the deal with Casale could not only ensure that the victims no longer have the support of the civic authorities but also that the Judges find extenuating circumstances to reduce Stephan Schmidheiny’s punishment should he be found guilty as charged.
AFeVA, the group representing the Italian victims, is understandably outraged by this betrayal. For years the town of Casale has stood shoulder to shoulder with the injured, their families, trade union activists, medical advisors and environmental campaigners. Holding to account the parties responsible for the operations of the Eternit Casale factory was always the top priority in their struggle for justice.
Individuals and victims’ groups from around the world have contacted Mayor Demezzi to express solidarity with the victims and beg the town to reconsider its decision.
The Mayor can be contacted by email at:
Please cc: the message to: AFEVA Casale asbestos victims association:
Please do it today as tomorrow will be too late.