Behind the Asbestos Curtain: Uralasbest 2021
Yuri Kozlov knows it, Yerkin Tatishev knows it, and I know it too.1 It is only a matter of time until the use of all types of asbestos is banned the world over. But, time is what the asbestos industry is banking on; another month, another year, another decade means more sales and more profits can be extracted from the commercialization of a substance they have readily to hand: chrysotile asbestos fiber.
The word asbestos is reviled throughout most of the world as a bringer of cancer and a harbinger of doom, however, in one Russian monotown in the Urals people base their lives around it. They mark Chrysotile (White Asbestos) Protection Day on April 16; they rejoice in the accomplishments of the mines technicians and sports teams; they participate in academic and athletic competitions run by the company and join staff to mark holidays such as Builders Day, the Day of Family, Love & Fidelity and Russia Day.2
At an outreach initiative in July 2021, wonderful job opportunities for young people at the Uralasbest mine in the city of Asbest (Asbestos) were promoted as follows:
There are special programs that allow you to get new skills and knowledge on the job, which means both the growth of seniority and the preservation of wages. The plant supports its employees by offering them spa holidays, payments on the occasion of the birth of a child, professional development programs and much more. Every year, as part of the fulfilment of obligations under the collective agreement, an indexation of the salaries of employees is carried out.3
There was no mention that exposures to chrysotile could cause debilitating diseases and premature deaths from various cancers and respiratory diseases. This inconvenient truth was also denied by people who lived in the chrysotile asbestos mining town of Asbestos in Quebec. They too were proud of their mine and the life it had given them and their families. As the biggest employer in the region, the owners of the Jeffrey mine were in a unique position to lobby provincial politicians, pressurize federal agencies, silence criticism of the industry and counter findings which could negatively impact on the corporate bottom line. Their expertise in doing so enabled asbestos mining in Canada to continue with generous financial support and political backing from successive Provincial and federal administrations. The final nail in the coffin for the asbestos industry was the 2012 election of the Parti Québécois (Quebec Party) Government of Quebec which cancelled a $58 million loan to the Jeffrey Mine – to enable the expansion of the mine in order for production to continue for a further 25 years – that had been agreed by the previous Liberal government. Two years after the Canadian government implemented an asbestos ban (2018),4 the electorate in Asbestos, Quebec voted to change the town’s toxic name to Val-des-Sources.5
As their Canadian counterparts before them, Russian asbestos vested interests aggressively defend the mineral at the heart of their industry despite shrinking markets.6 The fact that asbestos-free building materials and automotive products are now being developed and/or sold in Russia is evidence of a growth in local demand for sustainable and safer asbestos-free alternatives.7 According to Russian analyst Ilya Zharsky:
it [asbestos] has a very difficult image in the world. Its use is banned in 63 countries, and the average consumer has a very strong association with cancer. As the environmental agenda progresses, asbestos production may face strong opposition.8
The political support the Russian asbestos industry enjoys from central and provincial governments is solid. Nevertheless, there have been instances where officials have departed from the party line. In June 2011, a technical regulation was drafted by the Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise which proposed banning the use of asbestos in friction material; asbestos stakeholders retaliated saying such an action would result in the closure of six Russian companies.9 Three months later, the Russian Justice Ministry promulgated a revolutionary law (standard SanPiN1 18.104.22.16887-11) recognizing the occupational hazard posed by exposure to chrysotile and chrysotile-containing materials. In line with the policy of the International Olympic Committee, no chrysotile asbestos was used in construction for the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.10 Given the inroads that have been made in undermining pro-asbestos rhetoric in Russia, it is little wonder that 80% of the 450,000 tonnes of chrysotile produced by the Uralasbest mine every year is exported. 11
On August 20, 2021, Uralasbest is due to finalize the acquisition of another building products enterprise when shareholders of the Belgorod company meet to elect a new CEO and board of directors. Uralasbests vertical integration is a strategy which ensures that manufacturers will not diversify into asbestos-free technologies nor launch new ranges of asbestos-free products, thereby preserving Russian markets for Uralasbests homegrown chrysotile fiber.12 Speaking about the take-over earlier this month (July, 2021), Yuri Kozlov confirmed that Uralasbest was: consolidating chrysotile cement enterprises to maintain sales of asbestos and increase production of slate, flat sheet and siding Highlighting the importance of Uralasbests latest purchase, market analyst Alexei Antonov commented:
For Uralasbest, this is one of the most important transactions for the formation of a clear sales and production network, which means getting the largest distribution channel for the main raw materials and reducing costs for further production. In general, the Belgorod enterprise is a profitable asset. In 2020, Belatsi accounted for 14% of the total production of roofing sheets in the Russian Federation and 35% of the production of chrysotile cement pipes. 13
The purchase has received an endorsement from regional officials and promises of state support during the implementation of production and infrastructure projects.
According to Kozlov, increased manufacturing capacity will be required for the expansion of Uralasbest into the production of asbestos-cement building materials suitable for low rise construction in Russia such as pitched roofs and ventilation facades as well as diversification into the manufacture of asbestos-containing thermal insulation material. Whilst the production and processing of chrysotile will remain the basis of our economy, Kozlov reiterated, it would be irresponsible given the growth of the anti-asbestos campaign not to move away from mono-dependence.14 To this end the company is looking at ways to put to good use waste generated by its Number 2 asbestos processing plant by turning debris into additives for road construction, an industry of almost limitless possibilities in a country the size of Russia.
While Uralasbests expansion plans seem to follow a path well-trodden by 20th century asbestos companies such as Turner & Newall PLC, Cape Asbestos Ltd., Johns-Manville, Eternit and others, its marketing efforts can sometimes provide a bit of surprise. In June 2018, the company made international headlines when it uploaded to its Facebook page the image of President Donald Trump superimposed on plastic-wrapped shipments of its chrysotile asbestos. The image was accompanied by the words Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.15 In the post, the workers of the company thanked the President and the leader of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Scott Pruitt for their support for asbestos and reminded readers that mountain flax (another name for chrysotile) was an important mineral for the whole world. 16
Trump and Pruitt are gone and the Agency is now in the hands of Michael Regan who has promised a clean slate after the chaos of the Tump era. On June 11, 2021, Regan told members of a Senate Sub-Committee that the EPA was actively investigating multiple regulatory asbestos issues including the potential for a national asbestos ban.17
Meanwhile back in the Urals, Uralasbest will continue to milk the asbestos cash cow as long and as hard as is feasible. Its a shame that while they do so, more Russian workers will suffer, more toxic waste will be dumped and more hazardous material incorporated within the countrys infrastructure. Not to mention the damage done to innocent men, women and children in Uzbekistan, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, India and other countries which receive Uralasbest exports. From Russia with love? I dont think so!
July 26, 2021
1Yuri Kozlov is CEO of Russian Asbestos conglomerate Uralasbest. Yerkin Tatishev is the former Chairman of Kostanay Minerals and Orenburg Minerals JSC, Kazakhstans largest asbestos conglomerate and Founder and Chairman of the Russian-Kazakh Kusto Group which has, allegedly, been lobbying to forestall efforts to ban asbestos in Ukraine.
Yerkin Tatishev. Accessed July 20, 2021.
Правительственная делегация Казахстана планирует пролоббировать интересы асбестового монополиста – СМИ [Government delegation of Kazakhstan plans to lobby the interests of the asbestos monopolist - media]. June 17, 2021.
3 Профсоюзный лидер «Ураласбеста» выступил на XI слете профсоюзной молодежи Урала «УРА-2021»
[The trade union leader of Uralasbest spoke at the XI meeting of the trade union youth of the Urals URA-2021].
4 Press Release. CANADA COMPLETES LONG ROAD TO ASBESTOS BAN REGULATION: Pivotal to halt use in products, stop exposure. October 18, 2018.
5 Kazan-Allen, L. From Asbestos to Val-des-Sources. October 21, 2020.
6 Recent data from the United States Geological Survey show that global asbestos production fell by 37% between 2012 (1,900,000 tonnes/t) and 2020 (1,200,000t). Even in Russia the worlds biggest supplier of chrysotile asbestos fiber mining output fell by 27% from an average of 950,000t for the years 2011-13 to 690,000t for 2014-16.
U.S. Geological Survey. Mineral Commodity Summaries Asbestos. January 2021.
7 Textar представил новые тормозные колодки [Textar introduces new brake pads]. October 6, 2020.
ИзолМакс — огнезащита нового поколения [IzolMax - new generation fire protection]. February 4, 2021.
В Стерлитамаке запустят производство фиброцемента и экологически чистого шифера [Production of fiber cement and environmentally friendly slate will be launched in Sterlitamak]. June 28, 2019.
Почему лучше отказаться от асбестовых тормозных колодок [Why it is better to refuse asbestos brake pads]. July 23, 2019.
8 Белгородский шифер сменил крышу «Ураласбест» завершает покупку «Белгородасбестоцемента» [Belgorod slate changed the roof Uralasbest completes the purchase of Belgorodasbestotsement]. July 15, 2021.
9 Kazan-Allen, L. Russian Asbestos Ban? July 6, 2011.
10 Kazan-Allen, L. Russias Olympic Asbestos Policy. March 1, 2013.
11 Asbestos fiber from Uralasbest accounts for 41% of annual Russian output and 21% of annual global production. Data from asbestos companies and producing countries are often unreliable. In this case, however, there seems to be some consistency with one source reporting that Uralasbest chrysotile production in 2017 and 2018 were, respectively, 279,200t and 315,000t, and another saying output was 282,900t in 2017 and 291,000t in 2018. In a July 2021 article, Kozlov said that as part of the companys development plans, annual production of chrysotile fiber would be raised to 300,000t.
“Ураласбест” по итогам 2020г увеличил дивиденды в 1,8 раза [Uralasbest increased dividends by 1.8 times at the end of 2020]. April 26, 2021.
Markush, P. Мишустина попросили спасти свердловский завод от высоких налогов. Этого ждет весь город [Mishustin was asked to save the Sverdlovsk plant from high taxes. The whole city is waiting for this]. March 31, 2021.
15 Formuzis A. Russian Asbestos Giant Praises Trump Administration Actions to Keep Deadly Carcinogen Legal. July 11, 2018.
16 Facebook Page Uralasbest. Donald is on our Side! June 25, 2018.
17 TESTER PRESSES EPA ADMINISTRATOR ON ASBESTOS REGULATION, CITING HEALTH ISSUES IN LIBBY. June 11, 2021.