BAPE commissioners drill down on risks of re-mining asbestos tailings

The BAPE commission on what to do with the 800 million tons of asbestos-laced tailings in former mining communities is back at work this week.

Michelle Lalonde, Montreal Gazette

Updated: January 14, 2020

The old Jeffrey mine plant next to the mine in Asbestos is seen in December 2018. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

An independent commission of inquiry charged with advising the Quebec government on what should be done with this province’s mountains of asbestos mining residues began five days of sectoral meetings in Quebec City on Tuesday.

An estimated 800 million tons of asbestos mining residues, also called tailings, are piled in and around Quebec’s former mining communities, mainly in the Eastern Townships and Chaudière-Appalaches regions. The tailings still contain asbestos fibres, which can cause deadly diseases when inhaled. But they also contain substantial amounts of valuable metals and other materials, such as magnesium, silica, nickel, iron, chrome and manganese.

The Legault government has mandated the independent environmental agency, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), to weigh in on whether private companies should be permitted to reprocess the tailings to extract these valuable materials. Among other questions, the BAPE is studying the risks to nearby residents and to workers of disturbing the tailings.

On Tuesday, the BAPE commissioners quizzed dozens of government officials from relevant departments — municipal affairs, economy and innovation, education, energy and natural resources, environment, transport, health and social services — as well as representatives of the agency that deals with work-related illness and death (CNESST) and the National Institute of Public Health.

Commissioners tried to establish consensus on certain statements. All agreed, for example, that the asbestos residues should not be left as is, exposed to wind and erosion. But there was debate on whether it is technically or economically feasible  to “renaturalize” the tailings, by covering them with earth and planting vegetation on them, for example. Mining site restoration officials noted the mountains are so steep, covering them would require levelling them off, a daunting task that risks adding more asbestos fibres to the air.

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Officials from the economy and innovation department argued that extracting valuable metals from the tailings could be considered sustainable development, part of the “circular economy.” Public health officials, meanwhile, expressed concern that the government has not yet established background levels of asbestos in the air of former mining towns, without which the impact of disturbing the tailings cannot be measured.

On Wednesday, the commission will hear from Canadian and international researchers, and on Thursday from concerned municipalities and residents. The commission will meet with employers on Jan. 21 and workers on Jan. 22. These sectoral meetings are not open to the public or media, but can be viewed live or recorded on the BAPE’s website.

The commission has already held a first phase of public meetings in the former asbestos mining towns of Asbestos and Thetford Mines. Another round of public hearings will take place after Feb. 18, where members of the public will be invited to present briefs, express opinions and pose questions.

The BAPE commission, presided over by Joseph Zayed, must present its report to the environment minister by July 24. The mandate is to describe how asbestos has been used in Quebec, advise the government on how it can be safely removed from the built environment, summarize current science on health impacts and analyze the wisdom of re-mining the tailings from an economic, health, social and environmental perspective. The commission must also propose ways to dispose of the tailings that respect the environment and protect public health.

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