Quebec government sets up public inquiry into asbestos and asbestos mining wastes

Thu, Oct 24, 2019


Kathleen Ruff,

Quebec’s Minister of the Environment and the Fight against Climate Change, Benoit Charette, has mandated a government agency, Le Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement – BAPE (the Office of Public Hearings on the Environment) to hold an inquiry on environmental and health problems posed by asbestos, asbestos mining wastes and the commercialisation of asbestos mining wastes. Public hearings will be held from January 11 to 18, 2020.

In his letter, Environment Minister Charette notes that policies and regulations on handling asbestos are being applied differently in different regions and that public opinion in Quebec is divided. He mandates BAPE to:

  • draw up an overview of the presence and repercussions of asbestos in Quebec in order to enlighten the government on what position to take on projects involving asbestos, its present use, its commercialization and elimination, the types of projects being developed, etc.
  • draw up a statement of the scientific knowledge on the repercussions of asbestos, and in particular asbestos wastes, on health
  • analyse the pertinence of drawing up a framework for commercialising asbestos mining wastes and, if appropriate, propose a framework that takes account of economic, health, social and environmental aspects
  • propose methods of disposing of asbestos wastes while respecting the environment and protecting health

BAPE’s role is to inform and consult citizens, investigate environmental issues and submit recommendations to assist the government to make an enlightened decision.

Millions of tons of wastes, containing up to 40% asbestos, have been left behind by the companies who for more than a century operated asbestos mines in Quebec. The Quebec and the Canadian governments have recently provided millions of dollars of funds to companies to start projects to extract magnesium from the asbestos wastes. Normally one would expect major projects such as these, which pose serious environmental and health concerns, to be first reviewed by BAPE before being approved. This did not happen. There has been no transparent or independent review of the projects.

Of particular concern is that Quebec’s asbestos exposure standard is 1 f/cc (1 fibre of chrysotile asbestos per cubic centimetre of air) – a standard that was set by the asbestos lobby and is 10 to 100 times higher than allowed in the US, Europe, other western countries or the rest of Canada. Quebec’s leading health authorities (including the government’s own health experts), as well as the Quebec Association of Asbestos Victims, the Quebec Union of Injured and Sick Workers and the Quebec Public Health Association, have repeatedly asked the government to make Quebec’s exposure standard stricter. Intense lobbying by asbestos interests have succeeded in preventing this from happening.

Dysfunction and deadlock at Quebec’s Commission on Occupational Standards, Equity, Safety & Health

La Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail Quebec (Commission on Occupational Standards, Equity, Safety & Health) a government agency composed of an equal number of employer and union representatives, held a public consultation in 2017 on whether Quebec’s asbestos exposure regulations needed to be made more rigorous. Their recommendations were supposed to be handed down in spring 2018. A year and half later – silence. The Commission is deadlocked and is showing itself unable to fulfill its responsibility of protecting the health and safety of Quebec workers.

BAPE’s mandate to investigate these asbestos issues will start on November 25, 2019. Minister Charette has asked them to submit their report by July 24, 2020 at the latest.

The Quebec government is to be commended for initiating this public inquiry. It’s timing is wrong, however. This inquiry should have been held before major projects to commercialize the asbestos mining wastes were approved, not after.

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