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.
But the industry began its steady decline in the 1970s as science started linking asbestos exposure to serious health problems, such as lung disease and cancer.
Canada produced around five per cent of the world supply in 2010 and just 100,000 metric tons, the USGS says.
But Coulombe insists the international market for chrysotile -- the type of asbestos mined in Canada -- remains strong, which is great for business and the industry's future. The problem is, it also means the Jeffrey reserve will be bought up within a few weeks.
That prospect, he admits, has stirred up concern among his clients, who he says value Canadian chrysotile as the industry standard.
Instead, he says his customers will have to settle on lesser-quality chrysotile from places like Kazakhstan and Russia.
Coulombe, who says his mine has maintained a close working relationship with Lac d'amiante du Canada since 2008, had hoped its ally was going to pick up the slack until at least 2013.
"When one (mine) didn't have enough fibre, the other supplied it,'' he said.
"Our clients are a little unhappy with us because they say, 'We don't have any more comparable-standard fibre right now ... we are in the hands of the Russians.' ''
LAB Chrysotile, which operates Lac d'amiante du Canada, shuttered its operation indefinitely earlier this month. Last summer, company president Simon Dupere blamed its problem on internal challenges, including labour, production and development issues.
The company is also hoping to get permission from the provincial government to dig into a deposit under a highway in its central Quebec region.
Dupere did not return calls by The Canadian Press.
But Coulombe, and a published report, have said LAB Chrysotile's challenges are due to a massive rock slide that cut off access to the mine's economically viable chrysotile.
"They tried to remove it, more of it fell,'' Coulombe said of fallen rocks.
"That's why they had to stop operating because they spent and spent (money) and there's no mineral to sell.''
But the future is bright for Jeffrey Mine, he says.
Coulombe's so confident in its potential that 25 workers have been busy preparing the new subterranean section, so it will be ready to open by the summer -- as long as it gets support from Quebec.
Coulombe says he will only have enough money to open the underground mine if he secures a $58-million bank-loan guarantee from the Quebec government.
Once that project gets underway, he predicts Jeffrey can produce asbestos for another 25, or even 50, years.
The sector will have to continue fending off a growing group of international critics -- made up of health experts and activists.
They want politicians to pemanently close the Canadian industry, which ships the bulk of its asbestos to poorer countries where they argue safety standards are too weak.
Some of those activists held a dramatic news conference Thursday on Parliament Hill. They described the impact that exposure to asbestos has had on Canadians and their families.
Eleven-year-old Cavanagh Matmor tearfully recounted how she watched her grandmother gasping for air on her deathbed.
Her grandfather had worked in a Toronto factory with asbestos from the Jeffrey Mine, and her grandmother had become ill from exposure to the fibres her husband brought into the house.
"I wonder (if) it doesn't make them feel bad inside, because they don't know how it feels, they don't know how it feels to have a grandmother and a grandfather die of asbestos,'' Matmor said.
"They just don't listen to others.
"They just decide to continue, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart knowing that they're going to continue doing that and that people in other countries will have to go through the same thing.''
Matmor and her family are calling on the Charest government to reject the loan to keep the Jeffrey mine afloat -- and to shut down the industry for good.
But Coulombe, like other industry supporters, insists Canadian asbestos is no longer handled in a careless manner.
He said it's perfectly safe when the mineral's tiny fibres are bonded in products like cement.