Down and Out in Quebec
The stalling tactics and electoral promises involved in saving Canada's asbestos industry have been protracted; in their aftermath, recent developments have occurred which have spotlighted the false premises on which the financial and political case for expanding Canada's asbestos industry are based. On May 12, 2011 an interview was broadcast with Bernard Coulombe, the President of Canada's sole remaining asbestos mine.1 The fact that the mining executive agreed to appear on the popular U.S. TV program The Daily Show, hosted by well-known satirist Jon Stewart, was a decision that he, and other Canadian asbestos stakeholders, will probably live to regret. The media fallout from the transmission of the five minute segment entitled Ored to Death, which has been categorized as a public relations failure, is rebounding not only on Coulombe personally but also on the Canadian asbestos industry and the Quebec town of Asbestos, where the Jeffrey Mine is located. Indeed, the day after the transmission aired, a Montreal newspaper said that the town of Asbestos had been the object of ridicule on one of the world's most popular comedy programs.2
According to one published report, 3 the Coulombe segment began with lighhearted mockery and ended with moral indignation having quickly passed through disbelief, and embarrassment. Having shown Canadian Broadcasting Corporation footage taken in an Indian asbestos textile factory which used Canadian asbestos with no apparent safety measures,4 Mumbai-born reporter/comedian Aasif Mandvi asked the asbestos executive about working conditions in India. Coulombe commented maybe they're used to the pollution It's like antibiotics. They have natural antibodies. Shortly after this remark, Mandvi let rip: That's really fucked up, man, he said I mean selling them things that are going to kill them. I mean. That's my family over there.
The timing could not be worse for Coulombe and the international consortium hoping to receive a $58 million loan guarantee from the Quebec Government to complete work on the new asbestos underground mine. Although, Premier Jean Charest gave the project the go-ahead in April 2011, certain financial arrangements remained outstanding including the provision that the consortium come up with $20 million private sector financing. In the current climate this is looking increasingly difficult. Combined with Coulombe's misjudged TV appearance, growing Canadian scrutiny of government and industry asbestos misdeeds and increased ban asbestos mobilization in consuming countries have created a climate unlikely to encourage major investment in the beleaguered industry. On May 17, an editorial by Canadian researcher Ken Rubin detailed a catalogue of actions taken by Canadian officials, civil servants and commercial stakeholders to protect the asbestos industry; Rubin exposed government suppression of a 2008-2009 risk-assessment study (which) showed where higher exposure to asbestos contamination existed in Canada.5 On May 22, Ban Asbestos Campaigner Kathleen Ruff posted a blog confirming the unattractive climate for (asbestos) investors and the difficulty Coulombe is having bankrolling the Jeffrey project. Ruff says that a deadline of July 1 has been set for the consortium to submit the requisite documentation.6
Meanwhile, ban asbestos campaigners in India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia are embarking on proactive initiatives to quantify national asbestos legacies and raise awareness of the asbestos hazard. As part of its ban asbestos campaign, the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India has compiled a map showing the location of asbestos manufacturing facilities in India. A field assessment report by the Bangladesh Occupational Health, Safety and Environment Foundation entitled: Asbestos Time Bomb in Bangladesh was published this month (May 2011). In Indonesia an Asbestos Media Competition to raise awareness of the hazard amongst younger people is shortly due to begin while in the Philippines a street art competition is already underway to raise public awareness of the asbestos danger.7
The publications and outreach programs described above clearly illustrate the fact that civil society is confronting the issues raised by asbestos consumption; as a result of this engagement, the days when countries blithely imported asbestos are long gone. Questions are being asked and objections are being raised by consumers and environmentalists. The asbestos heyday is a thing of the past; it is time for Coulombe and other asbestos profiteers to accept the new reality. The world does not need more asbestos.
May 30, 2011
1 Hamilton G. Anatomy of a public relations failure. May 18, 2011.
2 Jon Stewart's popular U.S. TV show mocks Quebec town of Asbestos. May 13, 2011.
3 As the online version was inaccessible to British viewers, I am unable to make any first-hand comments about Coulombe's performance.
4 Canada's Ugly Secret.
5 Rubin K. Research data on asbestos exposure hidden. May 17, 2011.