‘It was a bad dream’
Thetford Mines workers suffer mesothelioma
By Jessica Centers, Anniston Star, July 10, 2005
THETFORD MINES, Canada — Louis-Marie Morissette parks his car at the Black Lake lookout tower and stops to greet an old man staring into its network of gray roads and blue pools.
Like Morissette, the old man – a stranger – once worked in an asbestos mine.
Now the retiree visits the open pit mine with nostalgia behind his eyes.
For 40 years, Jules Aime Jacques made a living in a British Columbia mine. He started out earning $35 a week and was up to $1,000 a week by the time he left. Now he likes to walk to the lookout and reminisce with mineworkers and tourists that might pass by.
It’s a bad thing what’s happened to the young people in the area, he says. Men bought nice houses with money they made at the mines, but their jobs have since gone away.
Morissette, however, believes getting out of the mines and going back to school was the smartest thing he ever did. He doesn’t share the old man’s opinion.
Nor does he share the pain he’s felt every time he watched a friend or family member die of an asbestos-caused illness.
People don’t talk about asbestos that way in the Thetford region, nicknamed the region of asbestos.
Reluctantly, Morissette translates a question to Jacques: Does he think asbestos is dangerous? Morissette already knows the answer.
“Non,” the old man says firmly, his expression becoming defensive.
“There’s a big problem here with pro asbestos,” Morissette says later. “As soon as we talk about asbestos and it’s not good for health, the people are angry. They don’t want to talk about that very much.”
He says the people here have always lived in asbestos.
As mines close and jobs disappear, the people don’t know what to do except support the asbestos jobs they still have and hope the mines will reopen.
Canada has been a leading producer and exporter of asbestos for nearly a century, producing about 61 million tons between 1900 and 2000.
In the 1970s, U.S. companies bought more than 500,000 tons of Canadian asbestos a year.
One was the Cement Asbestos Products Company, or Capco, plant in Ragland, an asbestos cement pipe manufacturer. The majority of Capco’s asbestos fibers came from the Black Lake mine.
Canada’s asbestos production is concentrated in this area of Quebec 150 miles east of Montreal. Black Lake is among at least eight mines in the Thetford Region around the towns of Asbestos, Black Lake, Thetford Mines and East Broughton.
Passersby can’t miss asbestos country.
If they’re traveling on Route 255 they’re greeted by a welcome sign: “Asbestos Bienvenue.” An orange truck the size of a house marks the turnoff toward the Jeffrey Mine lookout and the asbestos museum.
The open pit mine is more than a mile wide and just across the street are homes, businesses and playgrounds.
In Thetford, the area that once boasted 7,000 asbestos jobs and still has two mines in operation, the signals are even less discreet.
Route 112 borders Black Lake. To look into the mine’s 1,300 foot depth or across its two-mile length, takes just a glance that way.
Morissette knows he’s a minority in his hometown. He sees the mines as a powerful evil in Quebec, sacrificing human life to make a buck. The fact that he’s willing to talk about it makes him an even bigger rarity.
“I’ve seen so much people die of asbestos, many friends working with me at mines, uncles and aunts always with oxygen tanks, and they suffer.”
Statistics reported by the Institut National De Sante Publique Du Quebec substantiate such claims.
In 2004, the Quebec public health agency published the Epidemiology of Asbestos-Related Diseases in Quebec.
The study found higher rates of mesothelioma – a rare cancer in the lining of the lungs or abdomen caused by asbestos – in Quebec than in the rest of Canada and in several other countries. The highest rates were found in Quebec’s mining region.
Women in the mining region had at least 10 times more mesothelioma than women elsewhere in Quebec. Include women who no longer lived in the mining region but had lived there in the past, the risk becomes 20 times higher.
The study’s authors concluded that Quebec does not have an adequate surveillance system for asbestos-related diseases and that work-related cases may be far underestimated. They noted a poor recognition of the link between asbestos work and lung cancer.
The homes in Thetford and Black Lake are quaint and close together. Crisp white is broken by pinks, blues and yellows. Every other house has a line of bright clothes drying by sunlight and soft breezes.
The area has lost more than 6,000 mining jobs in past decades, but it’s hard to find peeling paint, let alone a dilapidated lot.
Morissette’s late aunt’s house doesn’t have any colorful trim or clothes hanging. A row of steps leads to the front porch.
As a boy of 10, he frequented his aunt’s house. Every day, twice a day, she swept the front steps, because every day, twice a day, a layer of white dust an inch thick would accumulate.
Just a few houses down and across the street from those steps – not 500 feet away – is the shaft and pit of the King Beaver mine. Once an underground mine, it was made into an open pit when the company found it could dig no further.
King Beaver is just one of the closed mines on Morissette’s tour. There’s also the two British Columbia mines, the National mine, the Flintoke mine, and the underground Bell mine that still produces asbestos.
Homes, schools and playgrounds were built around these mines, right up to their cliffs and barbed wire fences. For every man-made hole in the ground, the excavated rock has been dumped in piles around town that resemble mini mountain ranges.
He says dust still blows from Black Lake when its windy. One of the piles stretches along Route 112 for three-quarters of a mile, ending at a lake. The piles resembling weathered stone contain the rock that didn’t have enough asbestos to warrant putting it through the crushing process. It, too, may have some asbestos in it.
The piles border neighborhoods. Set behind rows of charming houses, one might expect to see skiers or children on sleds sliding down the backdrop of hills. In some places, kids do work their way behind gates and barbed wire to go off-roading across the piles, kicking up dust as they go.
In Thetford Mines and Black Lake, where the piles are everywhere, they look almost natural. Drive farther north to East Broughton and the occasional gray pile breaks up rural stretches of green.
When all the mines were operating back in the 1950s and 1960s, Morissette remembers a dusty cloud hanging over the region in summer. A gust of wind would blow asbestos off the piles like snow.
“Even now, if there is much wind it’s like snow sometimes, white stuff on everything.”
Morissette worked at the mines for five years into the early 1980s.
“It was a bad dream.”
He worked in bagging where he couldn’t see 20 feet in front of him through the dust. Had he known then what he knows now, he would have put a mask on. He remembers loading bags of a fine grade of asbestos into train cars. Any time a bag scraped against the door, asbestos would blow in his face. At times, a plate holding 48 bags was dropped and a cloud would escape.
Morissette left the mines to finish high school and went on to study “gastronomie.” He became a butcher and then a chef.
Hearing about people in Ragland, who worked short times at a pipe shop and now have mesothelioma, makes him shift in his seat, wondering if his six years in bagging will catch up with him.
“They don’t care,” he says of the companies. “Here we are only numbers.
“If they want to still develop the mining, they must recognize that in the last 50 years it was dangerous for the people. They must recognize that there are many people here that died from asbestos.”