Asbestos in Quebec waterway worries nearby residents, province under fire for failure to act

Experts are warning the province should put in place strict regulations if it’s going to use the asbestos tailings from now-shuttered mines in the province. 

Stricter regulations needed if using asbestos residue, environmental review finds

Former mine worker Michel Desfosses walks in the open pit of the now-closed Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Que. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Réjean Vézina, along with his neighbours in Lac à la Truite, Que., southeast of Thetford Mines, has been working to get the government to intervene and prevent asbestos from contaminating the nearby waterways since 2015.

He is the president of a citizens' group that raised concerns about poor water quality two years ago with the Ministry of Environment.

Tests at the time showed the level of pollutants was not above normal. 

But Quebec's Environmental Review Board (BAPE) confirms, in a new report, that high levels of minerals and asbestos have trickled into the water over the years, without any response from the province.

The report also states the ministry had little to no information to hand over.

"I'm really surprised by that, that for 50 or 60 years they don't have anything to give to the BAPE," Vézina said. "I cannot imagine that they haven't done anything all these years."

A spokesperson for Environment Minister Benoit Charette wrote in an email the minister will be going over the report's many recommendations with his colleagues in other ministries to determine the government's priorities.

A citizens' group in Lac à la Truite, Que., has been raising concerns with the Ministry of Environment about water quality in nearby lakes and rivers since 2015. (Submitted by Réjean Vézina)

BAPE drops report on asbestos residue use

Meanwhile, experts are warning the province it should have strict rules in place if it's going to allow the use of asbestos tailings from now-shuttered mines in the province. 

The BAPE started its hearings into the use of asbestos residue in December, 2019, and released its report earlier this month. 

Using the waste from an asbestos mine — for example, to extract magnesium — is risky, because when the asbestos fibres get into the air, they pose significant health and safety hazards, according to experts. 

The commercial use of asbestos was banned in Quebec, and in dozens of other countries, in 2018. 

Norman King, a professor at l'Université du Québec à Montréal and scientific advisor for the Quebec Association of Asbestos Victims, told Quebec AM the overriding conclusion from the BAPE hearings is that there are two conditions to meet before work can begin on asbestos residue: there must be a guarantee of no additional risk to workers or residents, and any asbestos fibre generated must be safely destroyed. 

"With such conditions beforehand, we are comfortable that before any work is to be done, there has to be a rigorous risk analysis done to make sure that these two conditions are met," he said. 

King said the recommendations in the BAPE's report could improve measures to protect people's health, and help set better standards for compensation for victims.

For example, he said, workers and their families often face numerous obstacles before being compensated if they develop an illness from asbestos exposure. 

The Jeffrey mine in Asbestos, Que., halted operations in 2011. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

In the case of mesothelioma — a fatal disease that develops after brief, low-level exposure — it can take decades to exhibit symptoms, and people being compensated today could have been exposed as early as the 1970s.  

The BAPE is recommending automatic compensation in such cases. 

"The board agreed with us and said this [compensation] process must be made more human and more simple," King said. 

King said one thing that was missing in the BAPE's report was protection for people who have been exposed to asbestos outside the workplace.

For example, he said, if a woman who washed her husband's clothes in the mid-1970s was exposed to asbestos and she later developed mesothelioma or lung cancer, there is no system in place to compensate her. 

Standard of exposure still too high: expert

King said although "very severe protective measures exist in Quebec regulations," he would still like to see the standard for exposure significantly lowered.

"As we now speak, in Quebec, the air quality standards for asbestos in the workplace are 10 times more permissive than elsewhere in Canada and the United States," he said. "The BAPE is very clear; it has to change quickly." 

King added in the next five years, he would like to see the levels lowered even further to meet the standard in some European countries, which is 100 times lower than in Quebec.

He said Quebec's workplace health and safety board (CNESST) has not budged. 

A spokesperson for the CNESST told CBC the commission will study the BAPE report and will not comment at this time. 

Louis-Julien Dufresne, from Quebec's Environment Ministry, wrote in an email that following the BAPE's report, the ministry will in turn make recommendations to the provincial government.

"The protection of the environment, and the health of workers and the population remain our priorities," he wrote. 

Quebec's environmental review board has published its recommendations on what the province should do with the tailings leftover from asbestos mining. Guest host Peter Tardif spoke with Norman King on how the recommendations could help set better standards for compensation for victims and measures to protect the health of people. He is a professor at UQAM and the scientific advisor for the Quebec Association of Asbestos Victims. 12:58

With reporting by Julia Page


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