Toronto Star - 6 June 2010 - Editorial by Kathleen Ruff
The battle to end Canada's export of deadly asbestos may be about to be lost.
Economically, the industry is on its deathbed. The last two asbestos mines (the Jeffrey mine and the Black Lake mine in Quebec) are both under bankruptcy protection, have almost exhausted their asbestos deposits, have slashed the wages of remaining workers and seen sales plummet by 50 per cent in the last decade. But the industry is counting on Premier Jean Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper to rescue it.
Apart from the moral issue of exporting asbestos disease for profit, taxpayers might want to take note of how two supposedly business-minded political leaders are risking public funds and Canada's international political capital to resuscitate an industry that is notorious for its record of economic disaster and public health tragedy.
Charest is on the verge of giving the industry a $58 million loan to finance a new, underground Jeffrey mine. He has set two conditions: that the workers sign a five-year contract; and that they put 10 per cent of their wages into a trust fund for five years, creating a reserve of $10 million that taxpayers would get if the mine fails and taxpayers have to pay the $58 million loan guarantee.
The industry tried unsuccessfully to get financing from private investors. Last year it seemed that a Chinese investment company might do so, but it withdrew at the last moment. Now Charest is stepping in with public funds where private enterprise refused to go.
If the negotiations currently underway succeed, the new mine will open shortly. It will export 200,000 tonnes of asbestos every year for the next 25 years to Asia and, the industry hopes, to Africa, where protections are virtually non-existent and resulting suffering and death will be enormous for decades to come.
With Charest providing financing, Harper has promised to provide international political protection to stop the industry being regulated. Harper is the only Western political leader and the only national Canadian leader to support asbestos. There seems to be no limit to the help he is willing to provide to the industry, including sabotaging a UN convention.
While ruthlessly cutting funding from scientific research on climate change and aboriginal healing programs, when it comes to the annual quarter of a million dollar funding for the asbestos industry's lobby group (the Chrysotile Institute), the Harper government gives the funds without a moment's hesitation, dismissing appeals by the Canadian Cancer Society and health experts.
With this funding, the institute publishes literature assuring developing countries that asbestos can be safely used and claiming that India, Thailand, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe have already achieved a 99.8 per cent success rate.
This is utterly false information. Quebec's asbestos is handled under appalling conditions overseas, as the recent CBC documentary Canada's Ugly Secret showed. Quebec government studies report a 100 per cent failure rate to handle asbestos safely in Quebec itself.
This lobby group's literature carries the emblem and flag of Canada. If the Vancouver Olympics logo was worth a fortune, how much is the official Canadian logo worth to the asbestos industry in pushing asbestos in the developing world as a product endorsed by Canada? The Canadian flag is supposed to be honourable.
Harper has given the industry his commitment that, as long as he is Prime Minister of Canada, he will support export of asbestos and will block a UN environmental agreement, the Rotterdam Convention, so as to prevent chrysotile asbestos from being put on a list of hazardous substances, as repeatedly requested by the convention's expert body.
Blocking the Rotterdam Convention is an important gift to the industry and one the industry has lobbied the government hard for, using its government-given funds. Sales would suffer if countries were informed of the hazards of asbestos and the necessary safety measures, such as a national inventory of every place where asbestos-containing products have been placed, and specialized equipment, training and processes whenever renovation or demolition takes place.
It is unlikely that Prime Minister Harper is a genuine enthusiast of asbestos. It is, after all, being removed at huge taxpayer expense from his official residence at 24 Sussex Dr. and from his workplace, the House of Commons. His motivation is a political agenda to win a couple of seats in the asbestos-mining region.
The Canadian Public Health Association says that "exporting death made in Quebec" is "wrong, unethical, indecent and we should all be outraged." This represents the feelings of most Canadians.
Premier Charest and Prime Minister Harper are about to give the asbestos industry a new life for the next quarter century. History will not forgive this betrayal of our country and of common human decency.
If we, as citizens allow them to do this, we will be seen by the world as the ugly Canadians.
Kathleen Ruff is author of Exporting Harm: How Canada Markets Asbestos to the Developing World. She is senior human rights adviser to the Rideau Institute.