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.

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