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Canada's asbestos mines quietly close

One mine's out of money, one's got production problems. But they both vow to resume mining the controversial mineral.

Photo of asbestos tailings pile, Thetford, Que., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the first time in more than a century, Canada's asbestos mines are shuttered.

The two main companies still operating in Quebec offer assorted reasons: one has financial problems, the other "operational" problems getting to the mineral.

Both say they'll resume work by spring.

But with debate still raging over whether it's right for Canada to continue to export the material that has been linked to cancer, it's unclear how the picture will look by then.

It's also unclear how manufacturers around the world will continue to obtain supplies -- unless they bit the bullet and keep buying from Russia, which produces what is generally classed as an inferior grade of chrysotile.

The Canadian Press has the story:

MONTREAL -- Canada's once-mighty asbestos sector has ground to a halt for the first time in 130 years, with production of the controversial fibre stalled in both of the country's mines.

A shutdown this month marked a historic milestone for the Canadian asbestos industry, which at one time dominated world production and led to the construction of entire towns in Canada.

Proponents of the industry insist it's way too early write the obituary on Canadian asbestos; they're hoping to start digging again as soon as the spring.

But for now, amid all the noisy political debates and a dramatic anti-asbestos news conference Thursday on Parliament Hill, Canadian production has quietly and suddenly stopped.

Work halted earlier this month at the Lac d'amiante du Canada operation in Thetford Mines, Que., which followed a production stoppage at Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, about 90 kilometres away.

The future of both mines is unclear.

Jeffrey Mine needs a bank-loan guarantee from the Quebec government before it can start digging a new underground mine. Lac d'amiante du Canada is apparently facing operational obstacles in accessing its mineral.

Canadian asbestos is expected to disappear from the international market altogether in the coming weeks, as the stockpiles at both operations dry up, says Jeffrey Mine president Bernard Coulombe.

Does the production standstill signal the end of Canada's embattled asbestos sector?

Not if you ask Coulombe.

"It's not closed ... fibre is still being sold,'' said Coulombe, who explains that both mines are still selling small amounts from their limited inventories.

He predicts production to resume at Jeffrey in the spring -- once the loan-guarantee is secured.

The production shutdown is the latest dip for an industry that has long been a shadow of its former self.

Canada gained a reputation as the world's top producer of a once-valuable global commodity that was hailed as the "magic mineral'' for its fireproofing and insulating characteristics.

Canadian asbestos represented 85 per cent of world production in the early 1900s and the country's annual production peaked at 1.69 million metric tons in 1973, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The resource was so valuable that the U.S. military drew up plans during the 1930s to enter Quebec and defend the mines if Canada ever fell under German control, said a researcher who's studied the history of Quebec asbestos.

Jessica Van Horssen also recalled how Nazi leader Adolf Hitler bought Canadian asbestos up until the Second World War for fireproof building material, and how Winston Churchill's bunker on Downing Street was also made of asbestos cement.

"It was also something that made the world safe and we wanted to be safe, especially during war time. It was a real comfort that things had asbestos in them,'' said Van Horssen, a post-doctoral student from McGill University.

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