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Inquiry into asbestos tailings projects is too little, too late, activists say
As Quebec’s independent environmental review agency prepares to examine controversial new projects to extract valuable commodities from asbestos mining residues, anti-asbestos activists say the agency’s mandate is too narrow and was assigned too late.
The Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) officially begins its mandate to look into the province’s asbestos legacy on Nov. 25, eight months after at least one of the projects it will be examining was granted a certificate of authorization by Quebec’s environment department.
The government has already invested tens of millions of dollars of public money in Alliance Magnesium, a company that plans to turn asbestos residues from the defunct Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos into valuable magnesium ingots and silica. And half a dozen other companies hoping to commercialize the mountains of tailings left over from Quebec’s asbestos mining days are in varying stages of development.
“The Quebec government is to be commended for initiating this public inquiry,” said longtime anti-asbestos activist Kathleen Ruff, of RightOn Canada. “Its timing is wrong, however. This inquiry should have been held before major projects to commercialize the asbestos mining wastes were approved, not after.”
“We are happy for the BAPE,” said Gilles Mercier, president of the Association of Asbestos Victims of Quebec. “Finally at least, we will talk about asbestos and that is urgent, because there are already these projects underway, disturbing the residues.”
But Mercier said his group is also disappointed with the way Environment Minister Benoit Charette worded the mandate letter. The letter puts the emphasis on the residue projects, without clearly requesting the BAPE to examine the broader problems asbestos poses.
“We would have liked the government to announce a real reflection on the whole issue of asbestos in Quebec — where are we with asbestos in schools, hospitals, private homes? — because people are not sufficiently informed.”
Use of the deadly fibre was aggressively promoted by the Quebec government for decades until the last asbestos mine closed in 2012. The federal government banned the use and sale of asbestos last year, but the legislation contained an exemption allowing the extraction of valuable materials from asbestos residues.
Environmental groups and public health agencies have been raising the alarm about the asbestos residue projects, and are calling for an independent review by the BAPE. The agency, which has an advisory capacity, can only examine issues or projects if and when the government mandates it to do so. Charette outlined the mandate in a letter sent Sept. 19, but the inquiry and public hearings were announced on Oct. 28.
In the letter, Charette asks the BAPE to “draw a portrait of asbestos in Quebec,” including how it is used currently, how it is disposed, the types of projects in development, etc. It must also review the current science on the effects of asbestos and asbestos residues on human health, and “recommend a framework for how asbestos mining residues should be remediated, taking into account economic, health, social and environmental aspects.”
A spokesperson for the BAPE, Alexandre Corcoran-Tardif, said the BAPE is interpreting its mandate fairly broadly.
“Asbestos was used in construction for many years, and the BAPE will be asking questions about that. That will be considered part of the general inventory we are being asked to do, on the presence of asbestos, whether it is in the roads, in embankments, in schools, and also in the tailings that we find concentrated in towns such as Thetford Mines and Asbestos.”
Mercier said he would have liked the mandate to explicitly include a look at why Quebec’s standard for acceptable workplace exposure to asbestos fibres (1 fibre per cubic centimetre of air) is still 10 times the standard in the rest of Canada. A commission of the CNESST, Quebec’s workplace safety watchdog, has been studying this question for years, and has been unable to reach a consensus.
“I don’t understand why Premier (François) Legault does not order the CNESST to reform the standards immediately,” Mercier said, adding he hopes the BAPE commissioners will make a recommendation on this issue.
The mandate should also include a look at how asbestos victims are identified and compensated, since he believes the process is too difficult. Year after year, asbestos-related disease continues to be the No. 1 workplace killer in Quebec: 135 deaths were officially deemed by the CNESST to be caused by asbestos in 2018.
He also hopes the BAPE will recommend Quebec conduct a wide-reaching public awareness campaign about the dangers of doing home renovations when asbestos is present, as the government of British Columbia has recently done. Difficulties workers face trying to get compensation for asbestos-related illness should have been explicitly included as well, Mercier said.
Mercier stressed that his group is not, in principle, against the idea of companies making money and creating jobs through projects that derive valuable materials from asbestos mining wastes. The concern is whether these projects be carried out without harming the health of workers or residents who live near the tailings or near the plants.
A spokesperson for Alliance Magnesium said company representatives will be pleased to participate in the BAPE investigation. The company’s pilot project employs 15 people, and 75 more jobs will be created when construction of the first phase of the magnesium smelter begins next year.
“We have engineering analyses and studies that demonstrate that our operations are more than respecting safety norms,” said Karine Vallières. “All measures are being taken to protect workers and to protect the environment and ambient air beyond the site,” she said, adding that the plant is 1.5 kilometres from the closest residence.
The BAPE inquiry and public hearings will be chaired by Joseph Zayed, a researcher in chemical and biological hazard prevention and associate professor at the Université de Montréal. The BAPE’s mandate begins on Nov. 25 and its report must be submitted to the minister by July 24, 2020.
Four days of public hearings will be held in Asbestos beginning Dec. 4, and four more will take place in Thetford Mines starting Dec. 10. The BAPE will also invite certain experts — researchers, industry representatives and civil society groups — to address the commission in mid-January.