Environment

Asbestos: in order to save the town, they may have to destroy it

GLEN ALLEN May 31 1976
Environment

Asbestos: in order to save the town, they may have to destroy it

GLEN ALLEN May 31 1976

Asbestos: in order to save the town, they may have to destroy it

Environment

The town clerk of Asbestos, Quebec, is a soldier-straight former policeman named Yvon Hamel who would like to put the finger on the villain of the piece. But where to begin? “All I know for sure,” says Hamel, “is that the mine made this town, and that it is the mine that will one day unmake it.” The town’s neat streets and groomed lawns sit bunched around the lip of what Canadian Johns-Manville Co. Ltd. used to call the “biggest open-pit asbestos mine in the free world” and now, in these days of postdétente, calls the biggest outside Russia. Anyway, it’s big—about a fifth of a mile deep and more than a mile across. Giant trucks heavy with asbestos-bearing rock wind up its terraced sides to huge mills which last year screened and separated 605,000 tons of this odd, fibrous metal, which has increased sharply in value in the past few years.

Nothing small or ordinary seems to happen to Asbestos, located 100 miles east of Montreal. When the town had a strike in 1949 it was a bitter, four-month-long affair that marked a turning point in Quebec’s history. There have been landslides where bits of Asbestos, buildings and all. have slid into the mine. There are the winds that sweep up the lovely valley of the Nicolet River and blow silt and dust into the houses. There are the dynamite blasts that twice a week shake buildings and, say town merchants, crack plate glass. And there is the disease—asbestosis.

Johns-Manville is far from being the worst employer in Quebec, but hundreds of its workers, their voices reduced to a painful wheeze and their working days over, have become sick from the effects of asbestos. Then, last year, came the mine’s five-year development plan. Since asbestos was first discovered on Charlie Webb’s farm 90 years ago, the mine has expanded constantly in the search for more. Indeed, outside Yvon Hamel’s door is a map of a phantom city that once lay over the present boundaries of the big hole. This time the people and officials of Asbestos wanted a look at the company’s expansion plans and now some are sorry they asked. By 1980 Johns-Manville says it must buy and destroy one fifth of the town and fully one half of the downtown area. Four bardes, two churches (one that cost $600,000 to put up less than 20 years ago), the two best restaurants, Bell Canada, two hotels, the liquor store, the community centre, the union headquarters, a funeral home and much of the town’s low-priced housing must go.

“At least we’re happy that we know ahead of time,” says Yvon Hamel. “Before, that didn’t happen. People can make plans now.” Hamel says the company has bought properties for tens of millions of dollars over the years and figures its new acquisitions will be paid for at the rate of about 1.8 times assessed value. “There are companies that wouldn’t do that. A smaller one might just pull up stakes and leave us here staring into an empty hole.” But Hamel, an Asbestos town employee for a quarter-century, says the people worst hit by the new plan average about 60 years of age. “This is the older part of town and these are the older people. A person that age isn’t interested in building a new home.”

Fernand Therrien, owner of Asbestos’ biggest furniture and appliance store, doesn’t know if he is up to building another. He built his new three-storey building on downtown St. Hubert Street in 1969, after mine expansion forced him to move. Henry Rouillard must leave the bicycle and sport shop he rents. “When I moved in a while ago I was told I would be safe for years. There isn’t any place to go in town that I can find.” Other businessmen and householders have other complaints. They can’t rent their apartments because they’re too close to the mine operations. They want to get paid now, not four years from now, for the buildings they’ll have to give up. They can’t abide one more day of the dust or the noise.

The strange thing is, though neither company nor town is legally free and clear to expropriate homes and businesses, no one ever says no. Company spokesman Marc-André Gosselin can think of only one man who wouldn’t sell, and he lost in the end anyway. Roch Frechette, once a mine worker and now an alderman, says there is no choice. If the mine stops looking for asbestos, 2,800 people stop working. It is a perfect and cruel dilemma. “We can work to make conditions better. But we must accept it.” Frechette doesn’t think mine development will stop, because the company knows there is asbestos in the pit at the 1,350-foot level, 400 feet below current digging. “My house will be in the next plan for sure,” says Frechette. “The mine will get bigger and bigger and one day there will be nothing left. The town of Asbestos will disappear.” GLEN ALLEN