September 21, 2012

The last asbestos mine in Canada

I grew up in an area where they mined asbestos (and gold, silver, nickel, zinc, copper and, now, diamonds).

I remember having a sample or two around the house and marveling at how a rock could have fibers soft as silk. The “magic mineral” they called it, taking its name from the Greek word for indestructible.

It is, of course, those fibers that science has proven to be not so much marvellous or magical but a deadly menace if taken into the respiratory system. In fact, it was a huge class action by miners and the like, suffering from or killed by asbestos-related diseases, that in the 1980s forced the huge Johns-Manville Corp. that operated the local mine and others in Canada, the United States and elsewhere, into bankruptcy.

The legacy of asbestos mining haunts the area still. Municipal officials recently issued a warning to people using the mountains of fiber-laden tailings for racing dirt bikes and ATVs.

For years, Canada had been the world’s leading producer of asbestos. The single biggest open-pit mine, and longest producing, was the Jeffrey Mine in the town of Asbestos, about an hour east of Sherbrooke. The mine has been operating steadily since the late 1800s and became a Johns-Manville property in 1918.

The company (founded by New Yorker Henry Ward Johns) built a modern town for the workers who extracted the pierre à cotton (cotton stone) from the earth.

That open pit is still, for my money, one of the most extraordinary examples of the power of humans to dig a giant hole. It’s a popular stop for tourists who are left agog at the enormity of the excavation.

As of last year, though, the Jeffrey mine had become the last producing mine in Canada, whereas at one time there had been 13 operations, 10 of them in Quebec.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg The friendly Commonwealth Games

    The 20th Commonwealth Games are now underway in Glasgow, Scotland, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Quebec's proliferation of festivals

    Woodstock en Beauce celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    July 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Quebec City's English paper a survivor

    In a city stocked with beautiful, interesting and historic buildings, the five-story gem located at perhaps the busiest corner in Old Quebec doesn't attract much attention, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    June 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Canadian hockey Kings

    As of this writing, the Los Angeles Kings have either already quaffed from their second Stanley Cup or are on the verge of closing out the New York Rangers, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    June 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Remembering the forgotten Empress

    The Titanic gets the most attention, what with the epic drama of the 1912 sinking of an incomparable luxury liner, stocked with celebrities, on its maiden voyage.

    May 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Canadians among TV conspirators

    Call me weird, paranoid, a child of Watergate and Contragate or just a connoisseur of tense political drama, but my current three favorite TV programs are about conspiracies in America, each in a different era of U.S. history, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    May 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Hurons gamble on Quebec

    When we were kids, our parents took us to visit Sainte Marie among the Hurons, the restoration of the settlement French missionaries built in 1639 in what is now central Ontario, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    May 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Canadiens are Canada's team

    The National Hockey League playoffs are underway, and for Canadiens fans, many of whom likely reside in the Montreal "suburb" of Plattsburgh, it is a time of hope and joy.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Big shift in Quebec vote

    Being a man of science, Philippe Couillard, premier-designate of Quebec, chose to use a geological term (though his field is actually medicine) to describe what happened in Monday's election, writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Black_Peter_2014_cropped.jpg Trench warfare in Quebec elections

    I've seen many a Quebec election in my day (I'll skip the "by cracky"), writes Canadian columnist Peter Black.

    April 4, 2014 1 Photo