Quebec’s environmental review board, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), has recommended 10 principles to guide the rehabilitation and possible exploitation of asbestos tailings in old mining sites in Quebec.
BAPE estimates Quebec holds 800 million tonnes of asbestos tailings, mainly in the areas around Thetford Mines and Asbestos, as well as in Nunavik — a legacy of a century of asbestos mining in the province. Though the federal Prohibition of Asbestos and Products Containing Asbestos Regulations (SOR/2018-196) prohibit the import, sale and use of asbestos, as well as the manufacture, import, sale and use of products containing asbestos, tailings are mostly excluded from its application, and companies are interested in exploiting the non-asbestos mineral wealth those tailings hold.
In September 2019, Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change Minister Benoit Charette asked BAPE to look broadly into the presence of asbestos in the Quebec environment, and specifically at issues related to the mining of asbestos tailings and the rehabilitation of asbestos tailings sites. BAPE issued its 343-page report, available in French only, on August 7, 2020.
Safety should be at the core of any new policy or regulations, says BAPE. Furthermore, Quebec’s Industrial Accidents and Occupational Diseases Act should be amended to allow for a simple and compassionate process to compensate asbestos-exposed workers for asbestos-related diseases. Other regulatory amendments should redefine respirable asbestos fibre to include fibres up to 5 µm in length rather than the current 3 µm, and should lower the occupational exposure limit for all asbestos fibres to 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre of air — a ten-fold decrease.
The business case for asbestos tailings mining appears shaky. BAPE says several projects have been initiated over the past 50 years, but only one is still in operation. BAPE also identified 10 projects at various stages of planning and development.
The BAPE report says that projects that propose to mine tailings for other minerals should be required to destroy all asbestos fibres and must not raise the risk of asbestos exposure for workers or residents. In an interview on Radio-Canada’s Midi info program on August 7, 2020, Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch Canada program coordinator, said the two safety conditions proposed by BAPE make it unlikely that a project could move forward.
With respect to site rehabilitation through re-vegetation, which is another option considered in the BAPE report, priority should be given to sites that border watercourses. Among those, characterization studies should identify sites most likely to contaminate aquatic areas and work should begin quickly to stem runoff.
The greatest needs, though, are research and data. There’s still much to be learned about the extent of asbestos in Quebec’s environment. There are no systematic data on the presence of asbestos in ambient air — the baseline exposure region by region against which increases or decreases in asbestos levels can be measured. The Quebec Ministry of the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change has not carried out periodic monitoring and has not documented the effect of the asbestos residues on aquatic ecosystems. There is no registry of buildings likely to contain asbestos.