The town sits tucked alongside huge open-pit mines under a sky that is sometimes grey from asbestos dust. Indeed, Thetford Mines, Que., seems unchanged from the town that was described by author André Langevin in his highly praised 1953 novel, Poussières sur la ville (Dust Over the City). For years the asbestos industry’s high wages kept many local citizens from accepting reports that prolonged exposure to asbestos fibre could cause cancer and asbestosis, a lung disease. But since 1979, when health concerns finally caused a worldwide drop in asbestos use, annual production has been cut by half and more than 6,000 miners have lost their jobs. Then, two weeks ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to ban all asbestos use over a 10-year period. Declared Quebec Mines Minister Raymond Savoie: “If this ban goes through, it could cost the jobs of anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 people around here.”
The EPA’S recommendation is damaging in both real and symbolic terms. Of the 744,000 tons of raw asbestos fibre produced in Canada last year, 601,000 tons came from Quebec—most of it from the Asbestos and Thetford Mines regions of the province’s Eastern Townships. Quebec’s five asbestos producers exported 120,000 tons worth $47 million to the United States last year. Along with that potentially lost revenue, many officials say that publicity from the EPA’S proposal will increase pressure for bans in other jurisdictions. Winnipeg city councillors cited the EPA report in their decision
last week to ban the further use of asbestos-cement pipe in waterworks projects until a report on possible health hazards is complete.
Last week industry representatives, union officials and politicians were mapping out a campaign against the proposed ban on the grounds that asbestos can be used safely. The industry is already pressing Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to discuss the EPA’S proposal with U.S. President Ronald Reagan when the two men meet in Washington in March. Said Conrad Giguère, an official with the Confederation of National Trade Unions, which represents asbestos workers: “If we can just convince Mr. Mulroney to talk to Mr. Reagan on our behalf, we have half a chance.”
The EPA’S proposal, which still has to undergo a lengthy public review before being approved, would immediately ban asbestos from products such as roofing material, for which substitutes are available. Asbestos used in other products—including automobile brake pads—would be eliminated over 10 years as substitutes are found. EPA administrator Lee Thomas said the agency believes that “no level of exposure is without risk.”
But the industry’s defenders argue that asbestos is being used safely. Products containing asbestos are now made so that the whitish fibre—prized for its resistance to heat—cannot escape into the air. Said Georges Dahmen, a spokesman for Quebec’s department of energy and resources: “It is the first dangerous industrial material
that we know how to use perfectly.”
But for many Thetford Mines residents the issues involved are more personal. In the past three years the population of Thetford Mines and neighboring Black Lake has decreased to 21,000 from 26,000 as mining jobs have disappeared. Said 42-year-old Marcel Coté, who was laid off last November after working for Black Lake Quebec Mines for 23 years: “This is not fun. Thetford will go down if we do not fight this [EPA] proposal.” Added Denis Leclerc, a 46-year-old father of two who last year lost his mining job after 27 years: “There is no future here.”
The area’s chronic unemploymentunofficial estimates run as high as 30 per cent—worsened last week when officials at the American-owned Carey Canada Inc. mine in East Broughton said the mine would close on April 25 because of falling demand, throwing 170 people out of work. One of the most worrisome aspects of the Carey Canada closure is that the mine is regarded as the area’s most efficient and technologically advanced operation.
A final decision on the EPA ruling is still months away, but Thetford Mines residents are already bracing for the worst. Said Denis Leclerc: “You ask yourself why you work so hard to have a good life, only to see it all go so quickly.” Indeed, last week Thetford Mines faced a future as uncertain as that of its principal product.
-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Montreal with GEORGES-HÉBERT GERMAIN and STEPHEN MCDOUGALL in Thetford Mines
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