Inside the mine, an unexpected calm
Workers have no respirators or dust masks, just pride in a slowly dying profession
By Jessica Centers, Anniston Star, July 11, 2005
THETFORD MINES, Quebec — LAB Chrysotile’s vice president of operations is a tall, thin man with an honest face. His employer owns all the asbestos properties in the Thetford region of Quebec, the area east of Montreal that tourism guides refer to as the region of asbestos.
Where seven mines once thrived, two are still producing asbestos — Black Lake and Bell.
Tom Coleman is the man in charge of Black Lake, an open pit two kilometers long, 1 1/2 kilometers across and 1,300 feet deep.
Coleman wears a hard hat and boots to descend to the depths of the mine and lead a tour of its mill.
No dust mask.
There’s no need, he explains. Chrysotile is not as dangerous as amphibole asbestos fibers. The chrysotile industry argues that because amphibole fibers have been shown to stay in the body longer, they are the fibers responsible for most of the asbestos illness and death around the world.
And besides, Coleman adds, the dust counts at Black Lake are too low to cause harm.
It would take heavy chrysotile exposure over a long period of time to pose a health hazard, he says.
Asbestos for the world
In the 1950s, Lake Asbestos of Quebec Ltd., later named LAC d’Amiante du Quebec Ltd., drained Black Lake and invested $40 million to develop a mine there. The American Smelting and Refining Corporation held controlling interest in the mine and was a major shareholder in the Cement Asbestos Products Company, which opened an asbestos cement plant in St. Clair County’s Ragland in 1964.
Thus, the majority of the asbestos fibers woven into the pipes made at Capco came from the Black Lake mine 1,400 miles northeast in the Quebec countryside.
At full capacity, Black Lake can produce 170,000 tons of asbestos annually. Since 1958, it’s delivered more than 5 million tons of asbestos to the world.
But for the past six months, the mine has been quiet.
Thetford’s mines, which once employed nearly 7,000 people, today provide jobs to less than 700 for only six months each year.
In 1986, Lac d’Amiante du Quebec Ltd., Bell Asbestos Mines Ltd., and Asbestos Corporation Ltd. created a company called Lab Chrysotile Inc. to manage all the region’s asbestos production.
Today, as a result of dwindling demand, Black Lake and Bell each operate only half the year.
Coleman says the reason the company chose to have two mines open half the year instead of closing one was in an attempt to keep as many people employed as possible.
When Black Lake shut down last November, 480 people worked there. When the mine reopens this summer, the number of employees will be down to 360. About 275 people work at Bell, a 100-year-old underground mine.
Canada’s mines now compete against producers in Brazil, Kazakhstan, Russia and Zimbabwe for the same shrinking market. Coleman said companies like Canadian chrysotile and the service they get, but they’ll buy what’s cheaper. Canada’s high labor costs make it increasingly difficult to compete globally, he said.
This spring, Black Lake negotiated an hourly wage reduction, from $20 down to $16 or $17, he said.
Together, the mines still produce 120,000 tons of asbestos annually, the vast majority of which is shipped to India and South America.
The United States still imports a few thousand tons of Canadian asbestos each year.
In the mix
A road carved in rock winds around the edge of the pit every 40 feet. Driving a minivan down the path, Coleman slows to point out the greenish hue of the serpentine rock where asbestos is found. It is mingled with gray granite. Whether a serpentine rock contains asbestos is a natural mystery, depending on what happened deep below the earth’s crust, Coleman says, revealing a hint of his passion for geology.
When he reaches the pit floor and steps from the van, his boots sink into a sticky, silver mud. A sucking sound escapes with each step as he heads for a jagged boulder. Coleman crouches beside the serpentine rock that shines silver and green to point out the veins of asbestos. Strands of white fiber poke out from the rock like clumps of bristly hair.
Coleman breaks off a piece, rubs it between his fingers and holds it out as if to show how harmless it is. One white strand lands on the tip of his nose.
The extraction process, he explains, begins with a drill fat enough to push a hole nearly 10-inches in diameter through a piece of rock. The hole is packed with explosives and the rock is blasted open. Then the mine’s fleet of dump trucks with 12- and 25-cubic yard buckets haul the rock to two piles — a waste rock pile and an ore pile that makes its way to the crusher.
It takes only three of the larger bucket heads to fill a 100-ton truck.
Coleman says the waste rock may have some asbestos in it, but not enough that it would have been cost effective to put it through the mill.
Once the ore is crushed and asbestos extracted, the remains become tailing piles. Those, too, may have some asbestos, but not enough to warrant extraction.
Since the mine began operation, it has created more than 325 million tons of waste rock and nearly 160 million tons of ore.
Coleman said the sand-like tailing piles don’t pose a threat to the environment or health of local residents, because a natural crust forms on the outside of the piles that prevents the wind from picking anything up.
The only time the tailings could potentially blow from the pile is when they are first dumped, but the company wets them first to prevent dust from escaping.
There was a time, before the wetting practice, that dust likely escaped into the air, he says.
The crusher is its own building where massive jaws bite down on ore. It looks as though the men who worked the last shift back in November left things exactly as they were. Dust is piled up on the crusher and coats the ledge of a window overlooking the jaws from a control room.
Coleman says no one who works there wears masks. He points out a phone booth-size room where anyone who feels they have dust on them can enter and a vacuum will suck out the dust.
Today, most chrysotile is used in asbestos cement, he said. It allows products to be lighter and stronger. The asbestos is locked in a matrix of cement so that there is no risk of exposure unless a worker is cutting or drilling.
Inside the mill, Coleman says only those in the dustiest areas wear paper dust masks, like the kind a doctor wears. Most of the workers wear nothing to protect them.
Employees do, however, wear ear plugs, he says, pointing out the dispenser. He believes there is a much greater risk of hearing damage in the mill than cancer or asbestosis.
With a flashlight to guide him, Coleman takes an elevator to the top of the mill and then walks down through each floor. He points out the mill’s air filtration system. Cloth tubes run from floor to ceiling — dust filters. Around the corner, a dust-monitoring instrument resembling an old-fashioned juke box constantly measures and prints the amount of breathable dust in the air.
Coleman says the mill is permitted to have 100 micrograms per cubic meter of dust in the air, but they usually have less than 10.
Inside a laboratory, a wooden box with copper-colored screens measures the asbestos fibers’ length. Above the counter where workers handle fibers are two vents that suck away dust.
The tour ends in the warehouse where bags of Lab Chrysotile asbestos
are piled to the ceiling. It holds 7,000 tons.
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