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MONTREAL — The announcement was described as a national embarrassment, the crass political manoeuvre of a desperate Quebec government trying to hold on to a Liberal seat at the cost of public health.
Critics lined up with speed and in number on the long weekend to blast Premier Jean Charest for green-lighting a $58-million loan to Canada’s last asbestos mine late on the Friday of the unofficial start of summer vacation season.
The loan stunned environmentalists, the medical community and cancer-fighting groups while promoters of the controversial relaunch of the Jeffrey Mine were more difficult to find. Even the province’s own public-health doctors are outraged.
Mr. Charest “has good reason to be ashamed,” said Yv Bonnier Viger, head of Quebec’s association of public-health specialists. “He is relaunching the exploitation of an extremely dangerous material that will cause the suffering and death of thousands of people in poor countries, at only marginal benefit to a desperate community.”
The province, led by retiring minister and local Liberal member of the legislature, Yvon Vallières, announced the loan and reopening before hundreds of thrilled residents of the economically depressed town of Asbestos.
Bernard Coulombe, the mine’s president and tireless promoter, had worked for years to find private investors willing to put in the balance of the $83-million start-up cost. “It was not easy to convince partners to work with us,” he said, adding that the mine will run 20 years on the investment.
Kathleen Ruff, an activist who has fought against government funding for the mine for years, said there was good reason for the difficulty: “The marketplace had spoken, this mine can only survive with artificial government life support.”
Mr. Charest has recently been on a wider push for more mining, as exemplified by his Plan Nord to ramp up resource extraction, but immediate political calculations are also at play.
The Premier is expected to call an election later this year – a vote he will be hard-pressed to win. While most Quebeckers oppose asbestos mining, the plan will have plenty of backers around the mine location in the Eastern Townships, where seats can swing.
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