Quebec: Heart of asbestos country reinvents itself

Jtaylor March 12, 2012 0
Quebec: Heart of asbestos country reinvents itself

Thetford Mines was the heart of the controversial industry. And asbestos jobs have dwindled, the town has diversified

 It’s an unlikely match, but a green chemistry institute is thriving in the old headquarters of a Canadian mine in a sign that the former world capital of asbestos is diversifying.

“We started with just two friends and two desks in an office, with no computer,” recalled David Berthiaume, who runs Oleotek, a research centre that develops industrial products from vegetable oils and animals fats, rather than oil byproducts.

The oleochemistry centre, which now has a team of 11 a decade after its launch, has since migrated to spacious premises next to the former asbestos mine in Thetford Mines.

The city along with the nearby town of Asbestos benefited in the 1960s from the extraction of huge mineral deposits of the material banned by Europe in 2005.

A carcinogenic product, asbestos was long used in construction, where it was favoured for its resistance to heat and fire.

But over the past 25 years the asbestos industry has collapsed, forcing Thetford Mines, a city of 25,700 some 240 kilometres east of Montreal, to adapt its economic model to the changing times.

“We gave this some thought around here. We said to ourselves, ‘apart from asbestos, what else could we produce here?’” explained Berthiaume, 36.

His centre has since launched a first start-up, Innoltek, which produces non-toxic concrete form release oil for the construction and precast concrete markets.

Once a mono-industrial city riddled with craters and slag heaps of snow-capped mining debris, Thetford Mines has since made huge strides in opening up its economy to new industries, from manufacturing and transportation to tourism, wind energy and research.

“In 20 years, 1,000 more jobs were created than were lost, but the salaries are not the same,” said the city’s Mayor Luc Berthold.

The average salary in Thetford Mines was among the highest in Canada during the 1970s, due to the extra compensation paid for working in risky mining jobs.

“People who worked in the mining sector had special training, whether in tinsmithing, mechanics, welding, etc. It was a good place to foster new businesses because there was specialized labour,” said Luc Remillard, president of the local economic development agency.

There is no public data on the unemployment rate in the city, but the Chaudieres-Appalaches region that includes Thetford Mines has 5.7 per cent unemployment, according to the Quebec Institute of Statistics. Remillard estimated Thetford Mines is on equal par with the regional figures.

For the first time in 130 years, Canada no longer produces asbestos. The Jeffrey Mine located in Asbestos — until recently the world’s biggest asbestos mine — is now shuttered.

But it could soon receive a $58-million loan guarantee from the Quebec government to resume activities in the spring, despite protests from a local coalition asking authorities to halt further investments in the asbestos industry.

After a cave-in, LAB Chrysotile closed its Lake Asbestos Mine in October, near Thetford Mines. After going into bankruptcy, it is now seeking a new investor to start its operations back up again.

Despite the success of its economic diversification and the risks associated with asbestos, Thetford Mines officials are adamant about relaunching the Lake Asbestos Mine, which once employed 350 workers.

“Replacing 350 jobs with small businesses takes time. The easiest way for us to keep an active economy is to safeguard our mining operations,” Berthold said.

“I don’t have a miracle solution. We’ve been looking for five years for a big business to create 350-400 jobs here, but they don’t come a dime a dozen.”


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