Canada's Chrysotile Business Is Dying Out

When Tom Coleman started in the ASBESTOS industry in 1971, the fibrous mineral he helped mine was as good as gold. It was used in thousands of products, from fire retardants to insulation, and Canada was the world's largest producer.
When Tom Coleman started in the ASBESTOS industry in 1971, the fibrous mineral he helped mine was as good as gold. It was used in thousands of products, from fire retardants to insulation, and Canada was the world's largest producer.

Canada's Chrysotile Business Is Dying Out

When Tom Coleman started in the ASBESTOS industry in 1971, the fibrous mineral he helped mine was as good as gold. It was used in thousands of products, from fire retardants to insulation, and Canada was the world's largest producer. Today, Coleman works at what could soon be the country's last asbestos mine, just outside THETFORD, Que. "It's sad," he says, standing at the bottom of the vast open-pit Black Lake mine. The product mined here is now an international pariah: most people don't even know what asbestos is used for anymore, they only know that it can cause cancer. Coleman, the 64-year-old vice-president of operations at the mine, leans down and picks at a piece of rock, pulling from it a clump of asbestos that looks like white cotton candy. He rolls it between his fingers and lets it drift to the ground. "The only thing it's done to me is turn my hair grey," he says with a smile.

In Quebec's Eastern Townships, the mineral is everywhere. The roads are literally paved with it (asbestos is sometimes used as a filler in asphalt) and the mountains of tailings that tower around Thetford stand testament to the century-long history of mining here. There's even a town not far from Thetford called ASBESTOS. From the bottom of this mine, a steady stream of 100-ton dump trucks lumber up a series of switchback turns, carrying their loads to the processor high above. The mine is going 24 hours a day, but its future is bleak. The partnership that ran Thetford's two asbestos mines went bankrupt this summer, and the underground Bell mine (down the road from Black Lake) is slated to close next year. The only other remaining mine in Canada, the Jeffrey mine, is also on shaky financial ground (Jeffrey Mine Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and production since then has been sporadic). Workers here say if the industry is not dead by spring, it will be within three years - a victim of the political push to ban asbestos and market forces that have made it hard for Canadian producers to stay competitive.

The shutdown of the industry in Canada will be cause for celebration among critics, who maintain that the export of asbestos is an international embarrassment. But, say workers here, the critics are blind to 30 years of change and progress in the asbestos business. The kind of asbestos mined in Canada, called chrysotile, is safer than the variety that has wreaked such havoc worldwide. Unlike other varieties, chrysotile is considered by the government and experts around the world to be safe when used properly. No longer sprayed on walls, it is typically mixed in cement to make pipes and building materials. Illness among today's chrysotile miners and workers is extremely rare. Nevertheless, the industry has never been able to outrun its troubled past or to shake its deadly image. "It's the sins of our fathers," says Ritchie Harnish, a worker at the Black Lake mine for the past 35 years. And to the last few hundred workers here, the constant threat of closure is the final insult against a much-maligned and misunderstood industry.

This summer may well be remembered as the one in which the Canadian asbestos industry was dealt its fatal blow. First, after an 18-month study, the Canadian Cancer Society called for the use and export of asbestos to be phased out for good. That broadside caught the industry off guard. The company that runs the Black Lake and Bell mines, LAB Chrysotile, says the Quebec arm of the cancer society was in "strong opposition" to a ban, although the society says its decision was unanimous. Shortly after the announcement, in late July, LAB filed for bankruptcy, and is now restructuring. In recent years, LAB has struggled with rising costs and stiff competition from foreign producers. It plans to run the Bell mine for four months next year, before closing it permanently and moving the workforce over to Black Lake. Workers still expect about 250 jobs will be lost.

That the industy has survived this long is in itself amazing. Asbestos has been under attack since the late 1960s and early '70s, after it became widely known that the handling of a commonly used variety, called amphibole asbestos, caused deadly lung cancer. The industry peaked around 1973, then began its long collapse. Amphiboles, which were imported into Canada and not mined here, were banned. But it remains a threat to this day in old buildings - from Parliament Hill to Toronto's subway tunnels - and so, its killer image lives on. In the late 1990s, the Canadian industry was hit with a French ban on asbestos imports, and in 2005 came a sweeping European ban. Markets in North America in the past five years have shrivelled and shipments within Canada have dried up.

The slim remaining hopes of the Canadian asbestos industry now lie largely on the shoulders of 27-year-old Simon Dupéré, the president and CEO of LAB. After his father, Jean Dupéré, died in 2002, he took over the company at the age of 23 while still a student at McGill University. Dupéré, who looks boyish even behind his desk in a pinstripe suit, has been called the Prince of Asbestos (a name friends tease him about). "I would rather have been called the Prince of Chrysotile."

In his office on the edge of the mine, Dupéré speaks with the polished pitch of someone who has flogged his product around the world. It's safe, it's useful, and there is plenty of science to back it up. But his optimism is guarded. Will the company survive? Dupéré says he has a plan, but no firm guarantees. "We'll have a good idea next spring," he says.

LAB plans to mine 120,000 tons of asbestos this year, a fraction of the over one million tons that came out of the Thetford region each year in the early '70s. Dupéré says sales have shrunk 50 per cent since 2002. Workers have seen their wages cut from $22-$24 an hour to $14-$16. The price of fuel and equipment and the rising Canadian dollar have all taken a toll. But for all the problems and the looming job cuts, Dupéré still seems to have the respect of his workers. He's done the best he can with cards he was dealt, says one. They know Dupéré has his legacy on the line, not to mention the fate of an entire town.

About 26,000 people live in Thetford, a rural town located between Montreal and Quebec City. It's big enough to boast a McDonald's, Canadian Tire and a Tim Hortons, but its best years seem well behind it. Many of the homes are postwar-era bungalows, built in the boom times, when there were seven mines operating in the area, employing 4,000 workers. The collapse of the industry would take with it about 500 well-paying jobs. Most of the workers are in their early 50s - too young to retire, too old to start a new career, or to want to leave in search of something else. Some nervously joke about going to Alberta. But, asks Harnish, who will hire them? Most have been working in the mines since they were 18 and are stuck with the stigma of being an asbestos worker, he says.

The lobby group Ban Asbestos Canada calls asbestos mining "a gross disregard for human life." In Thetford, it's hard to see how. The LAB plant is cleaner than a hospital. The top floor of the throbbing building that crushes the rock and sucks out the asbestos is an enormous vacuum system sucking up stray particles. Workers are examined by doctors once a year and given lung and radiology tests. The cloud of cigarette smoke in the Métallos union office in Thetford is far more ominous than the air at the mine. There were problems, and there was sickness, but that was cleaned up in the '70s, say union representatives. Dupéré is even more bold, saying that he has never seen a case of lung cancer here in his entire life.

The science over the safe use of chrysotile asbestos is fiercely debated. Both the industry and critics cite studies that they claim support their position. No one disputes the notion that chrysotile is less harmful than amphibole asbestos. But it is still a carcinogen, according to the World Health Agency - a fact that ultimately sealed the Canadian Cancer Society's decision to call for a ban, says Paul Lapierre, the group's director of cancer control. Even if it can be used safely, critics question what happens to the chrysotile once it's shipped to developing countries - the main market nowadays - where workers may be unaware of the risks and proper ways to handle it. They say asbestos use is impossible to monitor in places where safety standards may be lax. Dupéré says the company visits clients to ensure the mineral is used properly. "The argument on the other side is all emotional," he says. "We look at it rationally. In the end, I hope science and reason will prevail."

Miners here acknowledge the dangers, but breathing in too much of any dust, even wood particles, is risky, they say. And, the synthetic materials used in place of asbestos haven't been fully tested. According to Natural Resources Canada "there is no scientific proof that new alternatives are any safer." More studies are needed, acknowledges Lapierre.

If there's any hope for the industry here, it's in Asia and the Middle East, where demand for asbestos products is growing. But Canada is at a distinct disadvantage to today's big asbestos producers like Russia, Brazil and Zimbabwe, which are closer to emerging markets and can mine asbestos more cheaply. "If we could have a market here in North America, things would be very different," says Yves Poulin, a 53-year-old driller at the Bell mine and head of one of the two local Métallos unions representing asbestos workers. "But we are the victims of the 'Ban Asbestos' movement," he says.

What really troubles the workers is that people don't seem to want to listen to what they have to say. Neither the Canadian Cancer Society nor the Canadian Auto Workers Union, a strong supporter of an asbestos ban, have come to the town to speak with them, they say. Yet these miners, with their livelihoods on the line, seem almost resigned to their fate. "We're past trying to continue telling people you can use it. It's gone too far," says Harnish. "We've been fighting for our jobs for the past 20 years. Frankly, most of the guys are tired."

Maclean's October 1, 2007