Quebec’s independent Office of Public Hearings on the Environment (Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement) today made public its report on the state and management of asbestos and asbestos mining wastes in Quebec. The three-member Commission was mandated by Quebec’s Minister of the Environment to carry out an inquiry and advise the government how to deal responsibly with the more than 800 million tons of asbestos mining wastes left by asbestos mines that operated in Quebec for more than a century. In particular, the Commission was asked to make recommendations regarding multi-billion dollar projects to extract magnesium and other metals from the asbestos mining wastes.
The Commission’s report (available in French only) notes that the harmfulness of all forms of asbestos has been scientifically documented and proven and that there is no safe level of exposure to any form of asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos. The protection of health and the improvement of quality of life are the central elements of its analysis, says the Commission. In its 343-page report, the Commission makes important recommendations, including the following:
- That Quebec’s occupational exposure standard be immediately changed to 0.1 f/cc for all forms of asbestos. This would make Quebec’s exposure standard for chrysotile asbestos ten times stricter than it is currently, in line with Canada's standard.
- That the Quebec government create an agency to oversee the management and safe elimination of asbestos and to ensure that any decisions to commercialize the asbestos mining wastes are based on the best scientific knowledge and are just and transparent.
- That any project to extract metals from the asbestos mining wastes must not expose workers or the population to additional risk of harm and that the extraction process must totally eliminate the asbestos fibres in the wastes without harming air quality.
- That if the Ministry of the Environment is unable to establish criteria for ambient air level of asbestos, it should implement a control system to ensure that any project to commercialize the asbestos mining wastes does not increase the ambient air level of asbestos fibres.
- That the Quebec government change its regulations so as to include asbestos fibres that are less that 5 micrometres, which scientific research has shown also cause harm to health, as do longer fibres that are currently included in the regulations.
- That the government set up a registry of workers who have been exposed to asbestos.
- That the Quebec government establish a public registry of all buildings containing asbestos so as to reduce exposure and risk.
- That the government require workers who are likely to be exposed to asbestos to be trained and licensed.
- That the government reform Quebec’s workers compensation system, which is currently difficult and confrontational for workers, and make the process simple and human.
- That soils containing asbestos be listed in the land registry and be inscribed in the contaminated soil register.
The Commission notes that if the Quebec government approves the projects to commercialize the asbestos mining wastes, it would be first in the world to encourage such a practice and consequently could not benefit from any prior legislation or experience in this area.
In past decades the asbestos issue, both at the Quebec level and the federal level, was controlled by the Ministry of Natural Resources. The asbestos industry exerted strong political influence over these ministries, including placing their own lobbyists inside government. The focus was on promoting the mining and sale of asbestos. Inconvenient scientific evidence was ignored. The Ministry of Health at both the Quebec and federal level was sidelined.
Still today, the Quebec Employers' Council continues to put profits ahead of human health. It continues to support dangerously high levels of asbestos exposure for workers and opposes the recommendation that Quebec’s asbestos exposure standard be more rigorous.
In its report the Commission insists that the Quebec Ministry of Health be a key participant in all decision-making regarding the asbestos issue and, in particular, how the asbestos mining wastes are to be managed.
The Commission has made an important, positive contribution to protecting the health of workers and the people of Quebec. It conducted its hearings and its investigation in a rigorous, transparent manner. Its report is thorough and its recommendations are responsible and just.
The question now is: how will the Quebec government respond?