Belgium's Asbestos Killing Fields
Earlier this week (on May 21, 2013), the demise of Belgian asbestos Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne was announced. According to press reports, the nonagenarian passed away peacefully, a fate not shared by many of those condemned by his actions to early and painful deaths. Marchienne was one of two former Eternit directors found guilty by a Turin court for contributing to the asbestos epidemic which killed thousands of Italians. Marchienne and Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny were convicted of causing wilful permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety rules in a 2012 landmark ruling. They were sentenced to 16 years in prison and ordered to pay millions of euros in compensation to thousands of Italian victims, government agencies and civil groups.1
Needless to say, the convicted felons appealed the verdict; a judgment of the appeal is expected in early June, 2013. In the meantime, not one cent of the court-awarded compensation payments has been paid. Under Italian law, Marchienne's death will terminate the criminal proceedings against him and Etex, the current incarnation of Belgian Eternit.2 Marchienne's lawyer Cesare Zaccone told the Swiss news agency ATS that all proceedings are terminated by his death. It is believed that civil proceedings could be instigated against Marchienne's estate but this remains to be clarified by legal experts. The case against Schmidheiny continues.
While the focus of the Italian case was on the damage done by Eternit factories in Casale Monferrato, Cavagnolo, Rubiera, Bagnoli and Siracusa, closer to home the repercussions of the Belgian Eternit Group's asbestos operations had remained largely hidden. Belgian campaigners have described a kind of Omerta, code of silence, which persisted in Eternit company towns. The public policy of denial which was encouraged by the company was embraced by at-risk communities even as the number of asbestos-related deaths rose. Belgian Eternit's protective cocoon was, however, irretrievably shattered in 2011 by a plaintiff's verdict issued by Judge Thiery of the Brussels District court who ruled that Eternit: preferred the pursuit of profit above public health [and] made every possible effort to continue the production of the extremely poisonous substance, without giving a hoot about the people who worked with it.3
Even as the ramifications of Eternit's legal setback were being digested, work was already underway by the Belgian asbestos victims group (ABEVA) to document the scale of the asbestos tragedy in Kappelle-op-den-Bos, Tisselt and Harmignies, Belgian towns where Eternit asbestos-cement factories were operational in the 20th century. The research project, led by Eric Jonckheere, accessed official files, communal records and individual memories to document the names of people who were suffering from or had died from asbestos-related diseases.
Charts in the making.
Having recorded the names, towns, ages and diseases of the injured, maps were prepared with the following schematic:
Detail from chart (around Kappelle-op-den-Bos).
The maps which were revealed at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 were covered in multi-colored dots. In all, Eric Jonckheere told journalists, around 320 asbestos deaths in Belgian Eternit towns had been identified, amongst which were suicides of several factory workers from Harmignies.
Eric Jonckheere with chart.
The situation in Belgium was compared to that in France, Canada and Japan where the commercial exploitation of asbestos had also created a crisis in public as well as occupational health. How, in the face of so much knowledge about the asbestos hazard, were Eternit's deadly practices allowed to continue, the speaker asked. Company spokesmen relied on tried and tested propaganda to silence critics so that the profits might remain unaffected. The main arguments used were the following:
The Coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, Laurie Kazan-Allen, picked up on Eric's recitation of the asbestos industry mantra in her comments to journalists. The same propaganda which had been used in Belgium to preserve asbestos markets was, she said still being advanced by asbestos propagandists. Kazan-Allen exhibited documents collected the previous week at a meeting of the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva which showed the aggressive and defiant stance being taken by vested interests in asbestos-producing countries.
The presence of up to 20 journalists at the press conference and the flurry of magazine features, newspaper articles, TV clips and expressions of interest which have followed demonstrate increasing awareness of Eternit's crimes in both Flemish and French-speaking parts of the country. An eight-page feature in the Flemish magazine HUMO appeared last Tuesday (May 14, 2013) followed the next day by a six-page French feature in the Le Soir magazine. A three-minute segment on the ABEVA cartography was on primetime TV news on May 14 and radio interviews were broadcast throughout the day on May 14 and 15.
Commenting on the reception the asbestos deaths maps had received, Eric Jonckheere said:
It is well known that Eternit is appealing the decision given by the Brussels Court in 2011. The company knows that this case has huge implications not just for the Jonckheeres but for Eternit victims in Belgium and abroad. Wherever Eternit production took place, a trail of disease and death has followed. These maps are important proof of how generations of devoted workers paid with their lives for Eternit's profits. Baron de Cartier de Marchienne was over 90 when he died. My Father was 59, my Mother was 66, and my brothers were 43 and 44 when they were killed by asbestos. The world needs to know what Eternit has done.
May 23, 2013
1Kazan-Allen L. Landmark victory for Italian asbestos victims. February 18, 2012.
2 Proces Eternit: Procedure tegen overleden baron Louis de Cartier en Etex wordt beindigd [Eternit Process: Procedure against deceased Baron Louis de Cartier and Etex is terminated]. May 22, 2013
3 Kazan-Allen L. Europe's Asbestos Catastrophe. November 9, 2012.