Post-Asbestos Landscapes 2024
The production of minerals has an environmental impact and asbestos is no exception. In excess of 800 million tonnes of toxic waste were created as a result of 130 years of open-pit asbestos mining in Quebec towns like Thetford Mines and Val-des-Sources, formerly called Asbestos. 1 Mountains of tailings, all of which remain unremediated, dominate the landscapes of the mining region; although the amount of contaminated material in these grey mounds can vary, it is not unusual for them to be composed of up to 40% asbestos fibers.
The question of how to address these huge blots on the landscape is one which has engaged stakeholders in former and current asbestos-producing countries. As with every subject, there are diverse opinions and proposals for eradicating the hazard posed by this deadly environmental legacy.
In January 2024, the Quebec Government announced that a contract worth $6 million had been awarded under its 2022-2025 Action Plan to tackle the multi-faceted challenges posed by the Provinces long-tail asbestos liability. 2 A company based in Thetford Mines will undertake a two-year assessment of the situation under supervision by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests to acquire knowledge on the repercussions of asbestos mining residues on the environment and their management. According to the MP for Lotbinière-Frontenac, Isabelle Lecours: This is the first time that we will carry out an assessment with a view to restoring an old site with asbestos mining residues. It's important to do things right. This is a first step.
Elsewhere in Quebec, efforts to monetize asbestos waste by reclaiming magnesium, zinc and nickel are progressing. Despite concerns of local residents and environmentalists, millions of dollars of public money have been invested in projects such as one in the Eastern Townships to recover magnesium from waste produced by the Jeffrey Mine.3
Jeffrey Mine, Val-des-Sources (formerly Asbestos), Quebec. Wikipedia.
Commenting in 2019 on the project being spearheaded by the Quebec-based company Alliance Magnesium Inc. (AMI), Dr. Philippe Lessard, regional director of public health for the Chaudière-Appalaches region, said:
The risk I see is that as soon as we start to manipulate and disturb these residues, we are sending these (asbestos) fibres into the air, and they will circulate with the wind and settle everywhere, near homes and the population.
Promises about protecting AMI workers, Lessard said, ignored the issue of public health in communities known to suffer from elevated incidences of asbestos-related diseases due to the widespread contamination created by decades of asbestos mining and processing.
Quebecs approach for turning a liability into an asset seems to have found favor in China and Russia, both of which are still major asbestos producers. In early January 2024, news was disseminated about the signing of a contract to allow a mining company to reclaim high-purity silica, magnesium oxide and iron oxide from vast quantities of asbestos waste in Qinghai Province, home to the countrys largest chrysotile asbestos mine. Asbestos mining in China generates 4-5 million tons of waste every year. It is believed that, to date, 400 million tons of these tailings have been produced as a result of the mining of chrysotile (white) asbestos over a 65-year period.4
Eighteen months ago, a spokesperson for the Uralasbest company Russias 2nd largest asbestos producing conglomerate announced that plans were on course for the construction of Russias first plant to extract magnesium, mainly in the form of magnesium sulfate, for agricultural use, from mountains of asbestos mining waste in the city of Asbest, Sverdlovsk Region. According to Andrei Litvinov, construction will start in 2024 with completion in 2025; the plant will produce 20,000 tonnes of magnesium sulfate per year for consumption at home and abroad.5
Campaigners, such as the author of this article, have grave concerns about the plans for processing asbestos mining waste. History has shown that assurances given by an industry which has brought untold misery and premature death to millions of people around the world cannot be trusted to safeguard occupational and public safety. Unless regional authorities and national governments prioritize human health over corporate profits, many more will die.
January 15, 2024
1 Lalonde, M. Too good to be true? Transforming asbestos mining residue into money. January 2, 2019.
2 Savard, J-H. Lancement du projet de restauration de lancienne mine Frontenac à East Broughton [Launch of the project to restore the former Frontenac mine in East Broughton]. January 10, 2024.
3 Money for this project was sourced from both the federal and provinicial governments.
Lalonde, M. Too good to be true? Transforming asbestos mining residue into money. January 2, 2019.
4 变“包袱”为“财富” 青海创安矿业科技有限公司启动500万吨/年石棉尾矿综合利用项目并签署一期EPCO合同 [Turning burden into wealth Qinghai Chuang'an Mining Technology Co., Ltd. launched a 5 million tons/year asbestos tailings comprehensive utilization project and signed a phase I EPCO contract]. December 12, 2023.
5 Первый в России завод по производству спортивной магнезии появится в Свердловской области [Russia's first plant for the production of magnesia from waste will appear in the Sverdlovsk region]. June 23, 2022.