Meet Quebec’s ‘Mr. Asbestos’
December 27, 2009
Unaffected by fire, unchanged by weather, untouched by time’s dark captains – rust, rot and decay – asbestos possesses rare qualities for which it stands alone.
– JOHNS-MANVILLE PROMOTIONAL FILM
For a freshly graduated mining engineer, circa 1969, the Jeffrey asbestos mine in Asbestos, Que., offered Bernard Coulombe one of those exceptional – and irresistible – career opportunities.
Who wouldn’t want to pack up a specialty in rock mechanics – the Queen’s University program had just started to pump out its first graduates – and join the Johns-Manville company, a firm with the largest open-pit asbestos mine in the western hemisphere?
Who wouldn’t want to get in on the boom times?
The asbestos market was undeniably expansive. Europe was a big client. The U.S. was huge. Asia was coming on. The asbestos fibre extracted from the Quebec mine was considered best in class. The ore reserves promised another 40 years of mine life, despite the fact that the pit had been in production since 1879. And the mineral’s increasingly fashionable application – the industry likes to say that adding asbestos fibre to Portland cement is as powerful a reinforcing agent as using steel rods to reinforce concrete – created boundless opportunity to construct new homes that would be superior, said the marketing materials, to wood and brick and stucco and stone. Modern sidewalls for the homes of America!
Four decades later, it is hard to imagine a more dramatically changed circumstance.
The Canadian market has collapsed. Ditto the U.S. market. An asbestos ban across the European Union has been in place for more than a decade in recognition of the mineral’s pariah status as a deadly carcinogen.
In place of those markets, Coulombe has turned to the developing world to help chart the Jeffrey mine’s future.
The surprise is that Coulombe believes the mine has a future. While the open pit peters toward depletion – production this year totalled just 40,000 tonnes from a peak of more than 600,000 tonnes per annum – the Jeffrey mine in the town of Asbestos has moved toward Plan B, development of a vast underground deposit.
“We have here a huge proven reserve of chrysotile asbestos,” says Coulombe, meaning that the size of the ore body has been sufficiently drilled to determine not the scope of reserves that might be there, but the size of reserves that are there and are extractable. “We have 200 million tonnes of proven ore reserves. It’s good for the next 50 years.”
The next six months will be critical in determining whether Coulombe can execute his plan, thus kick-starting a Canadian industry presumed to be on death’s door.
“The marketplace is crying for chrysotile,” he says of his flourishing client base in India, Vietnam and Indonesia, where asbestos/cement sheets and roofing are seen by advocates as a huge social benefit to the poor and the needy. “I have a letter of interest from 15 of my biggest customers asking me for volume.”
Ninety per cent of the construction work on the underground mine has been completed. More than $130 million has been invested to date. Coulombe says the project requires a further $32 million to take it into production. Last spring, he was close to finalizing a deal with a Chinese investor who would have become a minority partner in the venture. “We were in the process of signing the documentation. We were there. The due diligence was almost completed. … and suddenly they decided not to come,” he says.
The week prior, at a town hall meeting in Victoria, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said he was “probably walking right off the cliff into some unexpected public policy bog of which I’m unaware,” in responding to a question about Canada’s continued asbestos exports.
“You have to be right,” Ignatieff continued, “and our export of this dangerous product overseas has got to stop.”
“I don’t know if it was for that,” says Coulombe when asked as to whether he felt Ignatieff’s comments played a role in scuppering the deal. “They said it was a very good project.” If he was still looking to raise funds in a year’s time, the Chinese investor said, they might be interested.
That is time that Coulombe does not have. He is now racing against the clock to secure financing. His intention is to get the mine into production by the end of next year.
“There are people around the world working to find partners to work with me. But as soon as somebody who’s interested, with a financial plan, understands that we’re talking about an asbestos mine, there is a …” he pauses and laughs lightly. “Always many questions, and they pass.”
Coulombe has a question of his own: “Why the hell is the rest of Canada on our back?”
“ALMOST 40 PER CENT of the world’s asbestos production is concentrated in a narrow belt of serpentinized intrusive rocks in southern Quebec,” wrote W. Gillies in the American Geographical Society’s Geographical Review in 1967. “The `Serpentine Belt’ stretched northeastward from the Vermont border in an arc parallel to the structural trend of the Appalachian system, of which it is a part. … Asbestos mining, since its inception in 1877, has been concentrated in the central part of the belt, between the transverse valleys of the St. Francis and Chaudière Rivers.”
When Coulombe started his career with Johns-Manville, the United States was consuming more than 600,000 tonnes of chrysotile asbestos annually. The commercial potential of the silky fibre, which runs in narrow veins through the green-black rock, ranged from siding and shingles to ironing board covers to fruit juice filters. Postwar schoolchildren were given the “magic mineral” to use as modelling clay.
Medical research from the late ’50s on the effects of asbestos exposure had not then entered the public consciousness. The link to mesothelioma, a cancer of the pleura, or outside lining, of the lung, was just becoming known. Individual reports on the incidences of asbestosis due to industrial exposure had not resulted in any broad public policy initiatives. Cases of mesothelioma deaths in patients who did not have immediate industrial exposure to asbestos dust had not yet raised the alarm over the potentially lethal effects of second-hand exposures.
In 1964, Dr. Irving Selikoff, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, published the results of the first longitudinal study of asbestos workers, tracking a group of patients who had worked at a small New Jersey factory manufacturing asbestos insulation products. Accounting for cigarette smoking among workers, and lung cancer mortality among smokers, Selikoff found a death rate seven times higher than the general population.
“In doing so,” wrote The New Yorker’s Paul Brodeur in 1968, “it furnished the first incontrovertible evidence that industrial exposure to asbestos was hazardous; it established sound methodology for future studies; and it marked a turning point in the views held by doctors and health officials around the world.” Brodeur interviewed Irving Selikoff for that article. “I don’t relish the role of Cassandra,” Selikoff said. “But I feel we’ve got to forge ahead on this problem as quickly as possible.”
A decade later, New York attorney Steven Kazan filed a lawsuit against Johns-Manville on behalf of an asbestos worker in California. That case, wrote Brodeur, was a “threshold in asbestos litigation,” foreshadowing a flood of lawsuits on behalf of thousands of plaintiffs presenting with asbestos-related diseases. The litigation in turn triggered a raft of bankruptcies, including that of Johns-Manville, which restructured as Manville Corp. and established as part of its restructuring a personal injury trust that would ultimately handle hundreds of thousands of claimants.
Given the long latency period for asbestos-related diseases, the ultimate number is still not known, yet without a doubt, asbestos litigation is the largest so-called toxic tort in U.S. history.
“Up until 1965, we had plenty of dust,” says Jeffrey mine’s Coulombe. “If people worked for a very long time in heavy dust, which is not the case anymore, then they will have asbestosis and eventually lung cancer. This is known. We don’t deny that fact.”
In 1983, Johns-Manville sold the Jeffrey mine to a group of senior staff and the name was changed to JM Asbestos. In 1991, Coulombe led an employee buyout of what is now known as Mine Jeffrey Inc. Today, Coulombe controls 65 per cent of the company. JM and LAB Chrysotile Inc., in Thetford Mines, Que., are the last Canadian asbestos producers standing.
Two years ago, JM and LAB joined forces to act as a single marketer to sell Canadian asbestos abroad. India is the No. 1 importer of Canadian asbestos, followed by Indonesia and Thailand.
The long-term corporate plan, says Coulombe, is to tease out the remaining reserves as JM prepares to transition to underground operations. LAB vice-president Jean-Marc Leblond says the combined strategy for the Canadian producers is to hold on to 20 per cent of the global export market and, potentially, grow it from there. “We have several customers that would buy more from us than what they’re buying,” Leblond says. Adds Coulombe: “All our customers want to get more from us because Jeffrey fibre is known as being the standard.”
Both companies, along with the federal government, have since 1984 funded the Chrysotile Institute, whose job it is to promote the mineral and trumpet its near-indestructible properties. Each contributes $250,000 annually to the endeavour. “We always have to beg for it every damn year,” says Coulombe of going cap-in-hand to Ottawa. He later says the funds are “peanuts” compared with the “millions and millions” that have been spent to sell a skeptical world on the safety of chrysotile.
That argument is focused on making a distinction. There is amphibole asbestos, a categorization that includes a number of deadly types of asbestos, including tremolite, amosite and crocidolite. And then there’s chrysotile, or so-called “white” asbestos, which has been found in plentiful supply in Russia and parts of Africa. And Quebec. The latter fibre, say its proponents, differs vastly from its deadly cousins both in the properties of its biopersistence, meaning the fibres are cleared more quickly after inhalation, and carcinogenicity. Characteristically, the chrysotile fibres are referred to as serpentine, or sinuous and silky, whereas the amphibole fibres are sharp and needlelike. Coulombe calls asbestos “a family with more than one child” in which, observers should understand, one is good, the other bad. Or relatively good.
In 2006, the World Health Organization issued a report entitled “Elimination of Asbestos-Related Disease.” The proponents of chrysotile decried this much-repeated highlight: that at least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. What was less reported, say advocates, was that no threshold had been identified for the carcinogenic risk of chrysotile specifically within the broader family of asbestos.
True. But the WHO also stated that exposure to chrysotile results in an increased risk of lung cancer – a point echoed most recently by an expert panel report commissioned by Health Canada – and that the industrial processing of the asbestos is a determinant of asbestos-related diseases. One of the highest points of exposure, said the report, occurs during the dry-cutting of asbestos cement products with abrasive tools. The WHO went on to state that the “most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.”
More than 90 per cent of Canada’s chrysotile exports go to manufacturers of asbestos cement products. In India, Mine Jeffrey Inc.’s top customer is Hyderabad Industries Ltd., the country’s largest manufacturer of asbestos-cement sheets and corrugated roofing. Outside one of the company’s factories on the outskirts of Hyderabad, pallet after pallet of this asbestos roofing – cheap and near indestructible – stretches as far as the eye can see.
Baljit Singh Chadha is Jeffrey Mine’s exclusive agent in India. The Bombay-born, Montreal-based Chadha, whose Balcorp Ltd. is a $100 million (revenues) international trade and marketing company, is a member of the Queen’s Privy Council and has been JM’s representative for two decades. “You have to look at it from the point of view that people didn’t have a roof over their heads,” he says. “With a little bit of economic development they were managing to have a shack with a roof over their head, and this was the most practical thing that was available.” If the product’s growth continues on its current path, Chadha predicts that India’s asbestos usage could grow to 500,000 tonnes a year from 300,000 currently.
The Hyderabad factory is clean. Dust levels are monitored. What producers have been unable to prove is that chrysotile is processed only in factories that follow Canada’s so-called policy of “controlled use.” The Chrysotile Institute, in its plentiful literature, states: “With the application of control measures, high-density products and the use of non-contaminated chrysotile fibres, there is no significant risk for workers, the environment or the general public.”
That is not always the case. Eight years ago, Coulombe visited a production facility in Vietnam to which the company had been providing fibre. Workers were opening bags of asbestos with a knife, which is certain to release fibres into the air. (Automatic bag openers are the industry standard for the asbestos cement industry.) The process from there, says Coulombe, was not done under “good aspiration.” The plant was dirty. “I said no more fibre until they fully clean up their act,” he says.
At LAB Chrysotile, Jean-Marc Leblond says he currently has between five and 10 companies on his so-called “black list,” to which he will no longer provide fibre and agrees that approval from the government of India is no guarantee that safe practices have been adopted.
Murray Finkelstein, a member of the department of family medicine at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory board, makes this observation: “I think the proponents in the Quebec mining industry are probably correct in saying the risk to workers can be limited – maybe not eliminated, but certainly limited with proper workplace controls.”
Finkelstein has two concerns. One: the ability of the developing world to adhere to acceptable controls and monitor dust levels in factory settings.
“I think the bigger issue,” Finkelstein says, moving on to concern No. 2, “is the question of the use of asbestos-containing products out in the field … If a factory turns out a piece of asbestos cement siding and some workers go at it with a power saw, which they are likely to do, there’s not going to be controls, there’s not going to be ventilation, there’s not going to be wet sawing.”
Even chrysotile’s most ardent proponents say sawing the asbestos cement roofing and siding with power tools is a potential hazard. They say the way to prevent this is education, though how to convey that message in a country such as India remains a mystery.
In Ottawa, the voices against Canada’s export of asbestos include NDP MP Pat Martin, who has been fighting to end Canada’s asbestos exports for the past five years. “There seems to have been some effort to tighten up conditions where we sell it, but it’s a mug’s game to try to enforce western standards in the industries of developing nations. It’s an absolute chimera,” he says.
A senior political adviser to Michael Ignatieff says the Liberal leader is clear on his position.
“At the end of the day, it is a dangerous product and we don’t think it should be exported,” the adviser says. “The reality is that it’s barely used in Quebec itself. We’re just exporting it. The idea that it’s being used in better ways abroad doesn’t really cut it.”
LAB Chrysotile’s Leblond reminds that the industry still has the support of both the federal and Quebec governments.
Coulombe retained a Toronto investment bank to beat the global money bushes for the $32 million needed to start mining underground. No luck.
“The last one was a Greek one,” he says of his company’s most recent potential dance partner. “Just to make a long story short, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because even if you have a good mine … nobody wants to invest with us because it’s an asbestos mine.”
That’s not the end of the story. The group of workers that participated in the buyout of the company control the mine today. Coulombe remains the majority shareholder. He says he is in no way deflated by his inability to get potential investors to see past the pathogenic potential of the commodity his company has been so successful at selling. Instead, he has energetically adopted Plan C: “I’m going to borrow the money and finish it,” he says.
“If everything goes well – and everything has to go well – we will be working in the underground mine and starting to produce in 2010. I can tell you, not just the Indian customers, but the big users of the world – Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan, Vietnam. They’re waiting for us.”