Last Chance for Canada's New Asbestos Mine?
Endless postponements of a decision by the Quebec government on whether to provide a $58 million loan guarantee for a new chrysotile asbestos mine has driven the scheme's backers to embark on another desperate search for investors. Accounts in Le Devoir, a French language newspaper in Quebec, suggest that Bernard Coulombe, the public face of the proposed mine, is once again looking for alternative sources of finance from the private sector. 1
Today, Le Devoir reported that Coulombe is on a trip to China to restart discussions with Chinese investors who had hastily pulled out of the project in 2009 soon after the (Canadian) Liberal Party declared support for a Canadian ban on asbestos mining and export. At that time, it was said that the (Chinese) Centree Group had decided to focus its financial portfolio on domestic projects. Whether that was the truth or a way to save face has not been verified but what is known is that the loss of Centree's $40 million investment was a knockout blow for the Quebec enterprise.2
The potential investors from China might do well to reassess the state of domestic markets before they commit to the chrysotile project. Things have moved on since their previous discussions with the mining consortium. In less than 3 months, a new Chinese industry standard (GB50574-2010) will come into force which will reduce demand for asbestos-containing building products. The national guidelines prohibit the use of chrysotile asbestos in siding and wall materials for construction. Taken in conjunction with other steps by the Chinese government, such as banning the use of asbestos in automotive friction materials (2003), prohibiting the import and export of amphibole asbestos (2005), and banning the use of all types of asbestos at the Beijing Olympics (2008) and the Asian Games (2010), there is room to question how much longer the Chinese authorities will allow the population and environment to be exposed to this carcinogen.3
Doubtless, Mr. Coulombe will do everything in his power and more to persuade potential backers of the lucrative nature of the scheme. Explaining the businessman's devotion to the industry, an article published in the New York Times recorded his comments as follows:
'For me it's not a business, because I will not touch any money until I am 80 years of age, maybe,' he said before returning to his list of complaints against litigation lawyers, public health officials, the asbestos removal industry and manufacturers of asbestos substitutes. 'It's a cause. This is much more of a mercantile war than a real safety or environmental war. I'm convinced I have a good cause.' 4
Assertions made by Coulombe in that article have impelled the International Mesothelioma Interest Group (IMIG),5 a body representing leading clinicians, researchers and scientists involved in the treatment, diagnosis and research of the aggressive asbestos cancer, mesothelioma, to issue a critique of some of Coulombe's key points. In a statement issued this week, the organization declared:
We strongly disagree with Mr. Coulombe's assertion that there are ' all sorts of studies done over the last 25 years all around the world that demonstrate that there is no problem working with chrysotile.' On the contrary, all types of asbestos have demonstrated their ability to cause asbestos-related diseases. People in the medical community, physicians and researchers have consistently provided evidence for this relationship. It is the reason that the 'World Health Organization (WHO) has declared chrysotile a carcinogen and notes that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos.' 6
The statement by the IMIG board concludes:
it is not possible to set a lower limit value for asbestos exposure under which there is no risk for human health. In other words, there is no safe use of asbestos. Even when efforts are taken to reduce exposure and control the handling by users, the life cycle of asbestos-containing products and the dissemination of used materials will needlessly expose a large population to this hazard.
One can but hope that the Chinese investors having once walked away from the chrysotile project will do so again. Should that occur, then the fate of this commercial venture remains dependent on the Quebec Government. Does Quebec have the stomach to throw yet more tax dollars at the seemingly bottomless pit that is the chrysotile industry? A French-language radio station from the mining region reports that the provincial government's decision is expected at the beginning of April.7
March 18, 2011
1 Mine Jeffrey pourrait etre relancee sans l'appui de Quebec. March 17, 2011.
L'interet des Chinois. March 18, 2011.
2 Ruff K. Asbestos Industry Suffers Major Blows in Canada. September 4, 2009.
3 Kazan-Allen L. China Increases Asbestos Restrictions. November 27, 2010.
4 Austen A. In a Town Called Asbestos, a Plan to Restart the Industry That Made It Prosperous. February 3 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/business/04asbestos.html?_r=1