Trouble in Russia's Asbestos Paradise?
The Russian town of Asbest is one of 340 so-called Russian monotowns a municipality devoted principally to one industry. In this case, as the name itself suggests, it is the mining of asbestos.1 But times are hard for Uralasbest, the company which runs the asbestos mine and provides employment for 6,700+ people. According to Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova in the past nine months, the profits of the town's main employer have been melting away because of shrinking global demand and local economic pressures such as steep tariffs on mining trains.
Disgruntled Uralasbest workers report substantial reductions in pay. One employee from the ore-dressing line told Ms. Nemtsova that although his monthly salary was 25,000 roubles ($767) his pay packet only contained 15,000 roubles ($460). In an IBAS interview with an expert on the Russian asbestos industry, Uralasbest's economic plight was confirmed:
Uralasbest faces major economic problems mainly because of a drop in demand for asbestos among its trade partners including India. Some producers of asbestos containing products purchased too much asbestos and their storage facilities are overloaded. Thus Uralasbest had to reduce asbestos mining. The facility stopped operations for one week in November. This is the third suspension in production in 2013. People are leaving and trying to find new jobs.
This situation is a far cry from the one portrayed in asbestos industry literature distributed at the Geneva meeting in May 2013 of The Rotterdam Convention.2 The headlines of various articles from a full-color 12-page English propaganda newssheet with the screaming front-page headline PEOPLE FOR CHRYSOTILE portray a workers' paradise; a selection of these titles with excerpts is informative:
The Russian idyll described above suggests a thriving town where civic pride, history and financial necessity have created a population supportive of the town's lifeblood the chrysotile industry. And yet, despite what Dr. Galina Tulkanova, Deputy Head of the Uralasbest Medical Unit says, people in Asbest are not immune to asbestos. According to local resident and former Uralasbest employee Galina Brusnitsyna: "Every second person [at Uralasbest] has asbestosis -- tiny fibers of asbestos -- stuck in our lungs and covered with scar tissue."3 Commenting on the health risk from environmental exposure created by Uralasbest's mining of 348 million tonnes of asbestos, local children's specialist Dr. Aleksei Kislinsky advised parents to move to an ecologically cleaner place than Asbest
While it is too early to predict whether the current economic difficulties of Uralasbest foreshadow the end to over a hundred years of asbestos mining, the Russian Ministry of Labor is offering families in monotowns between $9,000 and $25,000 to relocate to more successful cities. With young people also leaving to find better paid employment, Asbest may follow the same road trod by the Canadian town of Asbestos where chrysotile mining operations at the Jeffrey Mine officially ended last year (2012).4 Jeffrey mine workers, like their Russian counterparts, had also experienced shut-downs, part-time working and pay reductions. The Canadian chrysotile asbestos industry had ruled the roost for over a century; asbestos lobbyists had exploited political channels, commissioned phony science and collaborated with global stakeholders to whitewash the image of chrysotile. When the end finally came, the profiteers slipped off into the mist, abandoning populations in contaminated mining towns. Whether this will be the fate of the 67,000 inhabitants of Asbest remains to be seen.
December 4, 2013
1 Nemtsova A. Russia's Monotown of Asbest: The Town Asbestos Built. December 1, 2013
2 Kazan-Allen L. The Rotterdam Convention An Activist's Diary. May 21, 2013.
3 Nemtsova A. The People of the Pit. November 16, 2013.
4 Kazan-Allen L. Canada: No More Asbestos!12, 2012.