Asbestos critics refuse to be converted after meeting with industry powerhouse
Published Tuesday, September 27, 2011 7:37AM EDT
A mountain of mining residues from asbestos in Therford Mines Que. December 13, 2010. (Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
MONTREAL - Critics of Canadian asbestos say they weren't won over by face-to-face meetings Monday with a prominent businessman who argues that his industry has been unfairly maligned.
Some of the industry's most vocal opponents agreed to meetings with Montreal businessman Baljit Chadha, who was in Ottawa as part of his effort to revive the reputation of the asbestos trade.
Chadha's public-relations initiative comes as he seeks a $58-million government loan guarantee from Quebec that would help him reopen one of this country's last two asbestos mines. The province has set Saturday as the deadline to finalize the deal that would extend the life of the Jeffrey Mine for another 20 years.
Chadha said one of Monday's two meetings went better than expected.
However, the industry critics he met with all declared themselves unswayed: one group even issued a news release immediately after the meeting, condemning the asbestos sector.
Following another meeting, New Democrat MP Pat Martin said he and Chadha had a spirited exchange about the impact on poorer countries -- where most Canadian exports of the hazardous mineral are shipped.
Martin, a former asbestos miner who has long opposed Canadian exports, questioned the businessman's assertions that the hazardous substance can be adequately monitored by safety inspectors overseas.
During their 90-minute talk, he said Chadha also asked him to support his project to extend the life of Quebec's Jeffrey Mine, for the sake of jobs in Canada and affordable housing in India.
"And I told him I thought that what he's doing is morally and ethically reprehensible -- I (said) that to his face," Martin said.
"It was a frustrating meeting because either he doesn't get it, or he thinks we're stupid."
Chadha, however, described Monday's trip to Ottawa as a modest success. He said one of the meetings was "more positive than we were expecting," but declined to reveal which one.
"Because these were quite private meetings, I would not like to comment more on that," said Chadha, who added that the other session went about as well as he had anticipated.
He maintains that Canadian chrysotile asbestos, blamed by medical experts for causing cancer and other diseases, can be used safely -- even in poorer countries.
Chadha is now determined to correct what he describes as misconceptions about the controversial mineral, which he argues has been tarred by a well-organized lobby.
In an attempt to burnish the industry's image, he is planning to launch an ad campaign.
Chadha also spoke Monday for about an hour with asbestos opponents from the Rideau Institute -- president Steven Staples and senior adviser Kathleen Ruff.
But less than an hour after their discussion, the organization had already issued a news release condemning Chadha for ignoring health experts in pursuit of personal gain.
"It was extremely disappointing," said Ruff, adding the parties were civil with each other, but clashed on every issue.
"He's completely fixed, it seems, in denying the scientific evidence and in (his) determination to try and go ahead with this project."
Chadha, who is a member of Canada's Privy Council, is also hoping to meet with the editorial boards of major newspapers as well as other groups that have criticized the asbestos industry, including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Medical Association.
The CMA, however, says it has no intention of attending any such meeting.