Posted on May 15, 2017 by Mouvement PRO Chrysotile
Within the broader context of the sustainable and responsible development of Canada's natural resources, it is essential that we take a new and constructive look at how to make the most out of the mine tailings that have been accumulating in our regions in the course of more than 130 years of mineral extraction.
Local development, reduction of energy consumption, shorter mineral transits and substances' second life are all inescapable trends. The use of optimal, low-impact techniques respectful of adjoining communities offers countless new opportunities.
To concretize them, we must put science back at the heart of our decision making processes and move forward with economic development, reconversion and industrial diversification projects that will respond to all of our communities demands and be socially acceptable.
Over the years, our communities' workers and businesses have contributed to an exceptional rise in awareness of the importance of workplace prevention and health protection, throughout Quebec. Their unprecedented determination paved the way for the implementation of efficient and modern methods and practices, that allowed us to use our natural resource in a controlled and responsible manner. In doing so, we created secure and rewarding life and work environments.
The presence in our regions of hundreds of millions of tons of serpentine mine tailings, remnants of more than 130 years of resource exploitation, represents an incredible post-extraction economic opportunity. The existence and availability of minerals and metals such as magnesium, nickel, chrome, cobalt, etc. is well documented. The valorization and exploitation of these resources can open the way to the creation of new industries that will become sources of wealth and employment.
The waste piles are made of solid mineral fragments of various sizes out of which the majority of commercial chrysotile fibers have been extracted using dry machining processes (crushing, sifting, classification). The residues' granulometry is function of the ore's degree of processing and will vary between the size of a fist and finer particles. They mostly contain non-fibrous serpentine, chrysotile, magnetite, and granite.
Those tailings are generally found in cone shaped piles situated near the mining operation sites.
For our region, those tailings represent a potential source of economic development which could create sustained economic activities as well as well-paid jobs which would in turn generate and contribute to a good quality of life while adding to the existing economic dynamics.
Even if the mines are no longer exploited, scientific and technological knowledge and expertise accumulated over the years will allow for a safe use of products and by-products that may contain low levels of serpentine fibers.
The big anti-asbestos lobbies and their supporters generally have no friends. They only have interests. They put as much energy as possible in influencing governments around the world, including in Canada, with occasional success. Canadian political leaders, especially at the helm of government departments whose jurisdiction give them a say on those matters, should not be swayed.
For a number of years now, the international anti-asbestos lobby, working hand in hand with the mostly North American litigation business for whom representing alleged asbestos victims has become a gold mine, have been pursuing a relentless crusade in favour of banning the use of all asbestos fibers, all over the world. Their position is devoid of any nuance, they simply demand the banishment of all products derived from or potentially made with chrysotile fibers. Should they succeed, it goes without say that such decisions would have devastating impacts on our communities' development and future.
Countries which have banned all form of asbestos on their territory, including the European Union which has imposed it upon its members and a few others such as Chili and Australia, are obviously defending precise economic interests. One must bear in mind that they are actively involved in the lucrative chrysotile fibers and products' replacement business. It is also worth noting that they ─ and this group includes an asbestos removal industry dedicated to making the most out of this golden oportunity ─ never apply the underlying logic of their discourse on chrysotile's potential risk to replacement products that, for the most part, have never been seriously, scientifically tested in terms of the risks they pose to the environment and to human health.
Controlled use is a more intelligent, if more demanding response. There is no doubt that it also is a more responsible one than brutal banishments, political deadlocks or ideological stubbornness.
Blocking all projects involving the use of serpentine fibers in the name of health protection could unfortunately lead to the development of a false sense of security among the general public ─ as if overregulation could guarantee everybody's safety. Such a scenario could very well lead us straight into a dead-end, and prevent any industrial reconversion project of the serpentine waste piles from seeing the light of day.
The concept of "controlled use" is well known internationally, and is accepted and applied to a wide range of dangerous and carcinogenic substances such as silica, lead, mercury but also pesticides, herbicides or any such products or substances. How can one pretend that it cannot be applied to chrysotile and chrysotile-containing products?
Every day, we use a number of potentially deadly or carcinogenic substances in our homes and offices. Rather than banning them, we have learned to handle them in a safe manner. There is no reason why we should act differently with chrysotile and chrysotile-containing products.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) did put together a list of human carcinogens which comprises more than 100 substances, compounds or activities. Asbestos (with no distinction made between the various types of fibers) is part of that list, which includes silica, oral contraceptives, chrome, nickel composites, X rays, vinyl chloride, alcoholic beverages, tobacco smoke, wood particles, products used for making shoes and furniture, emanations from iron foundries, the rubber industry, aluminum production, cold cuts, diesel fumes, etc...
The IARC's classification doesn't mean these substances should be prohibited, but rather that the most reasonable and socially acceptable approach is, necessarily, their safe and controlled use.
The IARC also limits itself to identifying and characterizing the products' potential hazardousness. It doesn't provide any risk assessment ─ the probability that this potential risk would manifest itself in concrete, given situations.
Businesses involved in the manipulation of products made from mine tailings or their by-products that might contain fibers must of course agree to perform their work in a safe and responsible manner.
This well controlled approach is part of a sustainable development process. At stake are the workers' health and protection and the communities' quality of life.
Serpentine waste piles essentially comprise natural resources that are commonly found in the earth's crust all over the world. According to an European Commission study on the presence of airborne fibers, emissions from natural sources are probably higher than emissions from industrial sources. In some regions, residents can breathe up to 10 000 to 15 000 fibers per day, and their drinking water can contain between 200 000 and 2 000 000 fibers per litre. But this doesn't stop some people from declaring that a single asbestos fiber can kill ─ something that definitely should give pause for reflection on the extent to which information can be interpreted and manipulated.
Close examination of the toxicological data confirms that most toxicologists recognize that there is a threshold for the biological effect of asbestos fibers. Cautiously, they prefer to talk about a threshold that is "below detection limit".
A wealth of data produced and analysed in numerous scientific studies confirm that such is the case for chrysotile exposure. There is no statistically significant increase of diseases at an exposure level of 1f/cc or less in the air. To the best of our knowledge, this argument hasn't been refuted by any solid scientific study. At that exposure level, the risk for human health is so low as to become, for all practical purposes, scientifically undetectable. In the context of such findings, a safe exploitation of the mine tailings is absolutely feasible.
In our regions and elsewhere in Quebec, the soil and residues, in earth moist conditions, contain various proportions of generally entrapped fibers that are hardly airborne. Workers' potential exposure is consequentially very low, if not non-existent.
Furthermore, nothing in existing science or research, according to a summary analysis of the demographic composition of the Thetford Mines and Asbestos areas (2011), could lead us to believe that our regions' citizens, who live close to old mine shafts or existing mining residues, die prematurely. Similarly, there is no conclusive evidence that their life expectancy is significantly different from that of other Canadians.
In Quebec as elsewhere in Canada, sustainable regional economic development is based on the exploitation and development of existing natural resources. Maintaining quality jobs and creating new ones to replace those that have disappeared is the broad asbestos region's greatest challenge.
This is why we must put in place innovative, technically and socially acceptable solutions for the exploitation of tailings, responsible workplace practices and broadly disseminate this knowledge within the communities . The State and public organizations, especially those who are responsible for people's health, cannot always object without "stepping through the looking glass" and coming to see the actual situation first-hand.
The region can count on a wide range of assets to attract potential investors : numerous and abundant resources, qualified and available human resources, successful education and training centers, affordable living, a dynamic cultural life and an overall excellent quality of life.
Our regions' communities demand a positive governmental intervention in favor of reconversion. More specifically, they demand that authorities consider a reasonable and objective set of regulations to guide the work that must be done in areas where are located the residues that could potentially contain fibers.
Whenever exploiting waste piles containing serpentine mine tailings is brought up for discussion, our regions are faced with a very rabid crusade and encounter considerable resistance.
It is only reasonable to accept science's teachings and understand fact-based truths. Ours is a serious economic development and industrial reconversion project that our regions could undertake. It responds to our communities' environmental and social acceptability requirements. We sincerely hope that the government, without hesitation, will demonstrate its firm determination to accompany and support our collective and responsible undertaking. On this path, our communities are impatiently waiting for the government's helping hand.