September: A Month of Mixed Fortunes 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



The month isn't even over yet and it has already seen more twists and turns than a Coney Island rollercoaster. At the beginning of September, a week of meetings took place in Geneva to consider future initiatives of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Item 10 (e) on the agenda was a discussion on the Proposed Workplan on the Sound Management of Asbestos Wastes with Emphasis on Measures to be Taken in Disaster-Prone Areas.1 On Wednesday, September 5, discussion began of the workplan, prepared by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention, which set out a strategy for dealing with mercury and asbestos wastes. Proposals included measures to: raise awareness of the need for the environmentally sound management of asbestos in post-tsunami countries, initiate asbestos waste clean-up programs, discourage the reuse of asbestos waste, disseminate information on best practice for dealing with asbestos waste, promote the use of safer substitutes and promote the harmonization of national asbestos policies and regulations. A paper submitted by the Russian Federation was also considered by the Open-ended Working Group at this time. Delegates from Russia, India and Canada blocked the Secretariat's proposals to deal with the hazards of asbestos waste with familiar arguments such as:

  • “bound asbestos was not necessarily hazardous;”

  • more research is needed;

  • the Open-ended Working Group is not mandated to act on this issue;

  • the matter of safer alternatives is unresolved.

Due to the orchestrated opposition by asbestos stakeholders, the strategic plan, due to commence in 2008, was shelved. A Secretariat representative said that work would now be carried out informally in response to specific requests. An extract from the unedited draft report of this session concluded: “The Working Group agreed that it should not make any decisions on asbestos at its current session.”

On September 10, the French Asbestos Compensation Fund (Fonds d'Indemnisation des Victimes de l'Amiante: FIVA) issued its 6th annual report which documented a considerable rise in activity between June 2006 and May 2007.2 Over this period, a total of 22,681 compensation claims were received, a 32% rise over the previous year; in 2006-2007, FIVA paid out €375.3 million (262.9m) compared to €330.2m (231.3m) for 2005-2006, a rise of 14%. The vast majority of current claims are for pleural plaques and pleural thickening; the proportion of claims for mesothelioma and pulmonary cancer remained fairly constant. Interesting details which were highlighted in the 86 page report included:

  • 20.9% of claims are from people aged 51-55, 17.7% are from those age 56-60;

  • the 4 regions with the highest numbers of claims are in the North of France: Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Pays de la Loire, Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie.

After more than a year of controversy, on September 11, 2007, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the Blue Lady, formerly known as the SS France and the SS Norway, can be dismantled in India despite the undisputed fact that it contains a cocktail of lethal materials, including tonnes of asbestos. The judgment of Justices Dr. Arijit Pasayat and S.H.Kapadia in the case of Research Foundation for Science Technology and Natural resource Policy v. Union of India and Others found that the Recycling Management Plan proposed by “TEC is foolproof.” Explaining this conclusion, the judges wrote:

“According to the removal plan, all major quantity (sic) of ACM3 (85%) is in the form of wall partitions, ceiling and roofing in rooms and gallery. It is reusable. Therefore, the panels, partitions, ceilings, etc. have to be removed in such a way that the ACMs are not damaged…. It is only when these panels are broken that asbestos as a hazardous substance emerges. In the present case 85% of asbestos is in the panels and insulation that quantity (sic) is reusable.”4

Human Rights and Environmental Groups condemned the Supreme Court ruling which showed a “callous disregard” for the lives of India's poorest laborers. In its press release of September 12, 2007, the NGO platform on shipbreaking said:

“The Blue Lady ruling yesterday made a mockery of the Indian judicial system and shows it has no respect for their own rulings, and international law, but likewise has officially condemned the shipbreaking workers to death by accident or from occupational diseases such as asbestos and cancer…

The shipbreaking industry as operating today in India is an aberration against all norms of decency and humanity. By continuing to protect it, rather than reform it, India will soon find itself as a pariah among nations…”

On September 12, as part of the first ever World Social Security Forum, international delegates heard calls for a ban on the production, sale and use of asbestos. At the session entitled: Asbestos: Preserving the Future and Coping with the Past, Dr. Annie Leprince5 said that asbestos was the source of a “major humanitarian crisis on a global scale.” Concluding the keynote presentation, she stated:

“Both the health and economic effects of asbestos use, plead in favour of its prohibition. A ban is inevitable in the long run and this decision should be taken as soon as possible in order to preserve the future. Experience shows that there is always a possible alternative…

The ISSA Special Prevention Commission feels that it must continue to issue warnings on the devastating consequences both now and for the future, of the use of all types of asbestos. It will renew the warnings and repeat its call for a ban as long as is necessary.”

This was not the first time that such sentiments had been expressed within the context of a conference mounted by the International Social Security Association (ISSA), a body which in September 2004 adopted a declaration on asbestos that appealed to governments in asbestos-producing countries to “ban the manufacture, trade and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos-containing products as soon as possible.” However, the fact that the 2007 statements were made at an event held in Russia, the world's biggest asbestos producer, was bound to antagonize national asbestos interests. Categorizing the global ban asbestos movement as a “PR campaign,” a Russian asbestos lobbyist said that “there aren't significant risks… I haven't seen a single scientific study that shows the need for a ban.” Other Russian stakeholders warned that 500,000 jobs could be at risk as a result of a worldwide ban. Despite industry interventions raising the spectre of mass unemployment and arguing for the “controlled use” of asbestos, the majority of delegates at the asbestos session agreed that the new use of asbestos should be banned. Special Commission Chairman Mr. Jean-Luc Marie called for a concerted international effort to close down all asbestos mines.

The U.S. town of Libby, Montana has become synonymous with environmental pollution and corporate corruption. Workers and townspeople exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos over three decades have contracted and died from asbestos-related diseases in unprecedented numbers. The company responsible for the mining operations which generated high levels of airborne asbestos, W. R. Grace, has been under investigation by federal agencies for several years. On September 21, 2007, a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated criminal charges for the “knowing endangerment” of 8,000 people in Libby which were initially brought against Grace and seven of its executives by the U.S. department of Justice in 2005. If they are found guilty, the defendants could face prison sentences of five years or more. Federal officials believe that this case is “one of the most significant environmental criminal indictments in U.S. history.”6

Also on September 21, Draft Regulations for the Prohibition of the Use, Manufacturing, Import and Export of Asbestos and Asbestos Containing Materials were published in the Government Gazette Notice no. 30310 by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism of South Africa.7 The publication of this draft is the result of more than a decade of research and consultation which began in 1996 when the Environmental Portfolio Committee began an asbestos enquiry. The National Asbestos Summit followed in 1998 and in 1999 the South African Cabinet began consultation on the feasibility of phasing out asbestos use. Although the 2007 draft regulations will prohibit the import and export of asbestos and asbestos-containing products, the transit of such material through South Africa will still be permitted as long as there is no repackaging or processing required in South Africa. There is little doubt that this provision is an acknowledgement of the importance of chrysotile asbestos exports to South Africa's neighbor, Zimbabwe.

What can we conclude from the developments over recent weeks? Of the six incidents, only two represent failures to advance levels of protection from the asbestos hazard. Concerted action taken by industry stakeholders in Geneva was responsible for blocking efforts by the Basel Convention, a multilateral environmental protocol, to raise awareness of a hazard about which there is now a scientific consensus. Amongst the strongest objectors were delegates from India, the same country in which the dismantling of asbestos-laden ships, such as the Blue Lady, is legal, despite the demonstrable consequences for those employed in the shipyards. The other events discussed above constitute progress in:

  • attaining compensation for the asbestos-injured in France;

  • issuing calls for a global ban within the asbestos heartland, Russia;

  • prosecuting American executives for damage inflicted on Libby residents;

  • adopting ban asbestos legislation in South Africa, formerly one of the world's most important producers of amosite, crocidolite and chrysotile asbestos.

The struggle continues!

September 25, 2007




3 ACM: asbestos-containing material

4 The Indian shipbreaking industry is worth Rs 2,000 crore which is, by my calculations, equal to approximately $27 billion.

5 Dr. Annie Leprince is from the National Research and Safety Institute, France.

6 Scott T. Court Restores Key elements to Indictment against W. R. Grace. September 21, 2007.

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