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Canada tosses in the towel on defending asbestos

The Canadian government has tossed in the towel and will stop fighting international efforts to list asbestos as a hazardous substance, dealing a momentous blow to a once-mighty domestic industry that is now on the verge of extinction.

The announcement was made Friday by Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who hails from the asbestos belt and is one of the industry’s staunchest defenders.

He said the government will no longer oppose efforts to include asbestos to the UN’s Rotterdam treaty on hazardous materials.

Paradis looked glum and spoke in a nearly hushed tone during the announcement.

He cast the move as inevitable, given the growing opposition to the industry. Two of the parties in the Quebec legislature, including the new Parti Quebecois government, have called exports of the substance immoral given its links to cancer.

The PQ has said it will cancel a $58 million loan, promised by the previous Liberal provincial government, that was supposed to reopen what would be the country’s last asbestos mine.

Paradis blamed the PQ for the turn of events.

“First off I’d like to remind you that Pauline Marois, the premier-designate of Quebec, has clearly stated her intention to forbid chrysotile exploitation in Quebec,” Paradis said in his opening remarks.

“Obviously that decision will have a negative impact on the prosperity of our regions…

“In the meantime hundreds of workers in our region are without jobs, are living in uncertainty and hoping the mine will reopen… Madame Marois has clearly made her decision. So our government has made a decision that it’s now time to look after our communities, workers and families.”

Paradis promised that the Harper government would spend up to $50 million to help the region diversify its economy. He made the announcement next to the mayor of Thetford Mines.

The mayor expressed disappointment in recent events and thanked the federal government for helping to make the best of a bad situation.

Defenders of asbestos say the substance, especially the chrysotile form mined in Quebec, can be safe if handled and stored properly. The industry’s critics say they doubt that the mainly poor countries that still use the substance as a building material can offer such safety guarantees.