And Then there was One!
Asbestos is to Quebec what coal was to Wales. The importance of asbestos to the identity of the Québécois transcends rational argument and epidemiologic data. The fact that the region has amongst the highest incidence of asbestos-related disease in the world is dismissed out-of-hand as ban asbestos propaganda even though these findings were uncovered by Quebec-based epidemiologists.1
The 1970s were the heyday for Canada's chrysotile asbestos mining industry; eight Quebec mines in the towns of Asbestos and Thetford Mine gave employment to 4,000 miners. In 1979, Canadian chrysotile exports of 1.5 million tonnes went to 60+ countries. Since then the fall in global demand, rising production costs and stiff overseas competition have impacted on the industry with the result that by the beginning of June 2008, the Jeffrey Chrysotile Mine and the Lac d'Amiante Mine (also known as the Black Lake Mine) were the last working asbestos mines in Quebec. The cessation of mining operations at the Jeffrey Mine on June 30, 2008, makes LAB Chrysotile, the owners of Black Lake, Canada's only asbestos producer.2
The Jeffrey mine, North America's oldest open pit asbestos mine, was opened in 1879. After 130 years, all the surface seams of chrysotile asbestos have been depleted. Although there is more ore underground, to extract it would require $30 million of investment and 2 years of work on an underground shaft project. Bernard Coulombe, President of Jeffrey Mine, insists discussions are still ongoing with potential investors and that the mine is mothballed and not closed. Speaking at a public meeting in Asbestos on May 1, 2008, Coulombe said: We are still sitting on the world's largest deposit of chrysotile asbestos, the mine is only temporarily on hold.3 There are rumors the mine will reopen temporarily in the Autumn and there is talk of diversification into waste recycling and high-tech landfill: The Jeffrey site is ideal, said civil engineer Guy Fouquet from S.M. International The site is vast, far from human habitation and the land cannot be used for anything else. 4 Intensive efforts, including free tours of the mine site to promote the recycling scheme, are being made to convince townspeople of the advantages of the project. There is considerable opposition from local politicians and residents. Mayor Jacques Hemond, from the nearby town of Danville, is against these plans:
I don't believe our area is that poor that we have to turn ourselves into a large garbage can for Quebec We would have to put up with heavy odours, environmental risks and constant truck traffic. I fear this will make our towns unappealing and that could seriously affect our property values.5
Imported garbage would not benefit the area's struggling tourism industry said Martine Satre, proprietor of a gourmet restaurant in Danville. Large urban centers like Montreal must deal with their own waste not dump it in small, poor towns that accept it without question, she said.
Despite the spin being put on the temporary closure of the mine, the future looks bleak for the Jeffrey Mine's 275 employees, including 230 part-time miners, who are now out of work; the average age of the redundant mine workers is reported to be 60. When Coulombe went into receivership in 2002, the Mine's principle creditors lost $53 million; 1,400 working and retired miners lost an estimated $85 million when their pension benefits were slashed by up to 40 per cent and their insurance programs cancelled. No one can be certain what will happen in the coming months. One thing is certain: any promises made by the Jeffrey mine management should not be taken at face value.
August 12, 2008
2 Legault R. Times tough; without chrysotile, there's no space shuttle. April 14, 2008. The Record (Sherbrooke)
3 Fonda N. A time to look forward, says mayor; Recycling garbage at Jeffrey Mine. May 1, 2008. The Record (Sherbrooke).
5 McDougall S. Waste? Not! August 9, 2008.