Critics slam Jean Charest for jump-starting asbestos industry

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

There are two golden rules of political communications:

1. If you have unpopular news, announce it on a Friday when the media and public have already tuned out for the week.

2. If you have very unpopular news, announce it on a Friday afternoon at the beginning of a long weekend.

It seems Quebec 's government sheepishly chose the latter when announcing a massive initiative to jump-start the controversial asbestos industry.

In what's being a called a desperate political move on the eve of a difficult election campaign, the Charest Liberals have decided to loan $58-million to Montreal-based Balcorp Ltd. to mine chrysotile at the Jeffery Mine in the town of Asbestos.

It's expected that the loan will create almost 1,500 direct and indirect jobs in a depressed region of the province, and as a result, help Charest's Liberals win some seats in an upcoming election.

Outside the town of Asbestos, however, the announcement isn't going over very well, with critics suggesting Charest has chosen votes over health.

Yv Bonnier Viger, head of Quebec's association of public-health specialists told the Globe and Mail that Charest should be ashamed for putting lives at risk.

"He is relaunching the exploitation of an extremely dangerous material that will cause the suffering and death of thousands of people in poor countries, at only marginal benefit to a desperate community," he said.

Paul Lapierre of the Canadian Cancer Society called the move a national embarrassment.

"It's really beyond me," he said. "I really can't understand how the government could make such a decision."

During the 1950s, asbestos was seen as a miracle mineral, widely used in thousands of applications from coffee pots to home insulation.

Over time, however, miners started dying from respiratory diseases and asbestos was linked to cancer.

According to World Health Organization estimates, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure.

Asbestos has now been classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

It is banned in more than 40 countries, including Australia and in the EU,  and its use in Canada is severely restricted.

Despite the universally acknowledged risks, Charest has breathed new life into the beleaguered industry.

The $58 million from the Quebec government will enable the Jeffrey Mine to produce and export over 150,000 tons of asbestos annually, to developing countries such as India and Indonesia over the next 25 years.

At least they announced it on a Friday.