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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

The Canadian Asbestos Mining Saga Goes On – A Letter from the Would Be Owner/Investor –

A letter to the editor is the latest act in the saga that goes on in Canada as to a proposed investment in the old Jeffrey asbestos mine which produces chrysotile fibers. The saga highlights the tensions between jobs, investments and risks. As mentioned before, the reporting and articles do not cover key issues, such as whether the chrysotile fibers are "contaminated" by amphibole fibers. And, as covered by this prior post, the prospects of more fiber sales highlight the need to create at least some global rules in a global marketplace. The letter to the editor is set out below:

Why I want to be in the asbestos business


A number of people have ascribed ulterior motives to my reaching out to politicians, opponents, activists and the media recently in an attempt to initiate a dialogue on chrysotile (white) asbestos and export of that product to the developing world.

Many have asked me why I am leading a consortium of investors who want to reopen the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos.

The main reason is that as a successful entrepreneur I am always looking for promising new ventures that may be profitable, and for products to sell where there is demand. In those terms, the Jeffrey Mine represents a good business opportunity that we project will be profitable for the 20-year lifespan of the mine.

However, like most human beings, my motives extend beyond the mercantile. I see in the reopening of the Jeffrey Mine the opportunity to create wealth in that community. Reopening the mine will create 500 jobs, generate $1.1 billion in salaries to employees over the life of the mine, and generate government revenues in mining duties, corporate taxes and municipal taxes of $330 million. Millions will be also be injected into a fund to diversify the economy of the Eastern Townships. This is very good news for an area that needs good news.

I also see benefits to the end users of the finished product, primarily corrugated cement roofing sheets manufactured using five-to seven-per-cent chrysotile asbestos. For the poorest of the poor in the developing world this lowcost, strong, stable product provides a basic roof over a family’s head. Despite statements to the contrary, no substitute product or material can provide the same benefits at the same price. For people living on $2 a day, even chrysotile cement sheets are a stretch, while their alternatives are an impossibility. We owe the world’s poor at least the possibility of a roof over their heads. That is perhaps only less important than fulfilling their need to eat and their access to potable water.

None of this would be an issue if asbestos were a completely safe product. In fact, we know that inhaling asbestos in large-enough quantities over extended periods causes mesothelioma and other diseases. We are still seeing the effects of old loose asbestos handled improperly before the 1970s causing deaths now. We take significant precautions in removing old free asbestos from our homes and commercial or institutional buildings today, as well we should.

We also know that chrysotile (white) asbestos was mixed in the past with imported amphibole (blue) asbestos. This mixture, combined with heavy cigarette smoking, was deadly. Today the Jeffrey Mine produces only chrysotile (white) asbestos.

But opponents claim that asbestos of any kind should not be used in any way, at any time, in any place. This is a facile solution. It in no way involves assessing the difference between blue and white asbestos, the risk vs. benefit, and does not factor in current safety measures that bear no resemblance to the cavalier measures in place decades ago in Canada and abroad.

Making decisions such as this based on risk alone would mean, by all logic, that we would have to ban nickel, zinc, mercury and any number of other naturally occurring or man-made substances that pose any risk to humans. That, to me, makes no sense at all. We endeavour to use these substances so as to minimize risk and maximize benefit. And that is what we should be and are doing with chrysotile asbestos.

There is peer-reviewed scientific evidence that exposure to chrysotile asbestos respecting the province’s industrial exposure standard of one fibre per cubic centimetre poses no health risk. That is the norm at the mine today and by the World Health Organization today. There is empirical evidence that the mine workers and their families are showing no ill effects from exposure to these levels today. Cancer rates in the area are no higher than they are in other industrial towns or cities.

A central argument of our opponents is that the safehandling practices in Canada cannot be exported abroad and that safety measures cannot be ensured in the developing world. We agree that we cannot ensure safe use everywhere in the world, but we certainly can ensure safe use by our 24 or so clients, and we intend to. We will only sell to major manufacturers who adhere to safe practices, and we will audit those practices annually using qualified, independent inspectors. We will not sell to "mom-andpop" manufacturers. We will be a model of safe handling practices that we hope others who are being supplied by competitors will emulate.

Finally, opponents of the industry claim that the end user’s health will be compromised if he or she builds a roof out of cement reinforced with chrysotile. In fact, the product is extremely stable, with a life of about 50 years, and the chrysotile that is part of it is fully bonded and contained. Harmful dust can only be created using highspeed power tools, rare in the developing world, and in fact that risk can be virtually eliminated by wetting the product, as we do when cutting concrete with a power saw. The risk to the user is practically non-existent for any number of reasons, most notably that the chrysotile is not free, the panels do not deteriorate and high levels of exposure are not present over the product’s life cycle. Once the product needs to be disposed of, it can be done easily and safely.

We must be careful with asbestos. We must handle it safely, in the ways that have been proven safe. We must be mindful of the tragedy of past use. But we must learn from the past and evolve beyond it, not be hamstrung from moving forward by prior experience that no longer applies.

Baljit S. Chadha leads the consortium of investors intending to purchase the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos. He lives in Westmount.

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