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Despite health and safety risks, many in Asbestos and Thetford Mines want asbestos waste repurposed

The question of how to manage the residue at the Jeffrey Mine is a critical one — so much so that more than 150 people packed into a hall in Asbestos for a four-hour, standing-room-only public consultation Wednesday evening.

Quebec's environmental review board kicks off public consultations into use of asbestos residue

It was standing room only at the first public consultation for Quebec's environmental review board's hearings into asbestos use. (Bertrand Galipeau/Radio-Canada)

While many health and environmental advocates are warning about the potential harmful effects of repurposing asbestos mine residue, people in Asbestos and Thetford Mines — including the mayors of both towns — hope to benefit from the millions of tonnes of the substance not now being put to use.

Asbestos expert Kathleen Ruff says using the waste at the mine — for example, to extract magnesium — is risky, because when the asbestos fibres get into the air, they pose significant health and safety hazards.

Local officials, however, are adamant the process can be done safely.

The question of how to manage the residue at the Jeffrey Mine is a critical one — so much so that more than 150 people packed into a hall in Asbestos for a four-hour, standing-room-only public consultation Wednesday evening. It was the first of several Quebec's environmental review agency, known as the BAPE, will hold in the coming months.

The Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Que., was once the largest open-pit asbestos mine in the world and  the main economic driver of the local communities for decades.

Asbestos was mined there for more than a century before the mine closed in 2012.

"We don't exploit the asbestos anymore as a resource; we only want to [make use of] all the residue from the previous exploitation," Martin Lafleur, the director of economic development for the City of Asbestos, told the BAPE.

No standard for measuring fibres in air

Lafleur said many residents don't see a problem with asbestos because there hasn't been a history of asbestos-related illnesses in the region.

"We're going to benefit [from the BAPE hearings] because there is going to be clear regulations, which are not exactly clear right now," Lafleur said.

Federal environmental officials told residents that repurposing the residue is possible with regulations, but they don't yet have a standard against which to measure the concentration of asbestos fibres in the air.

Mayor Marc-Alexandre Brousseau of Thetford Mines, about 80 kilometres east of Asbestos, told Radio-Canada it's important to acknowledge a lot has changed since the mine closed. He said that because they are no longer extracting asbestos, the primary concern is no longer the health of miners.

The Jeffrey Mine, once the largest open-pit asbestos mine in the world, closed in 2012. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Communities 'betrayed by their governments': human rights advocate

Ruff, a human rights activist and the founder and director of Right on Canada, has campaigned to have the federal government include asbestos waste in its legislation banning asbestos, but it does not.

She said a "major, major, major concern" for her is that the standard for exposure set by the province's occupational health and safety commission is much higher than other jurisdictions allow.

"It is extraordinarily high and allows workers in Quebec to be exposed to higher levels of asbestos fibres," she said.

Ruff said the BAPE hearings will be worthwhile if they prioritize health and the environment, and if they are based on transparent processes and independent science.

Former mine worker Michel Desfosses walks along the banks of the open pit of the now closed Jeffrey Mine in August 2016. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

"Finally, hopefully, we will find there is no longer this lack of transparency, that things will come out in the open and be discussed on the evidence," she said.

Ruff said she wants the government to help communities diversify their economies so they do not have to process the mine residue.

"Millions of dollars were spent by the Quebec government and the Canadian government and the asbestos industry for decades to give false information to those communities," she said.

"I think that they were betrayed by their governments and by the asbestos industry and told that it was harmless."

Town changing its name

Asbestos Mayor Hugues Grimard announced last week the town will change its name next year, which sparked debate online.

The mayor said there is a negative perception around asbestos, from which he would like to distance the community.

But he also said the name change has nothing to do with the BAPE consultations.

"I am sick of fighting perceptions. I want to fight for the people here," he said. That means finding a way for the neighbouring communities to benefit from the remains of the mine, he said.

Public consultations are also set to take place in Thetford Mines next week.

The BAPE report is due by July 2020.

With files from Radio-Canada

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