Asbestos industry strikes back at critics in high-stakes PR battle

MONTREAL – A prominent asbestos merchant is headed to Parliament Hill as part of a broader counter-offensive to salvage the reputation of his beleaguered industry.

Baljit Chadha is fighting back this week after Canada’s asbestos sector has absorbed a public-relations pummelling, both here and abroad, in recent months.

The public-relations battle comes at a critical time.

The Quebec government is considering whether to help Chadha save one of Canada’s last two asbestos mines, in the town of Asbestos, with an Oct. 1 deadline looming on a decision.

Chadha is now determined to dispel what he describes as myths about the contentious mineral, which he argues has been unfairly vilified by a highly organized “anti-asbestos lobby.”

Chadha plans face-to-face meetings Monday with his most vocal critics, including New Democrat MP Pat Martin.

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Afterwards, the Montreal businessman will meet with Rideau Institute president Steven Staples and communicate by teleconference with Kathleen Ruff, a human-rights activist and tireless asbestos foe.

These meetings are just the beginning of his pro-asbestos blitz.

He is planning to launch a public-relations campaign that includes a detailed advertisement titled, “What is chrysotile – Asbestos?”

Chadha said he also hopes to meet with the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Cancer Society and editorial boards of major newspapers.

However, the CMA said in an email Sunday that it has no intention of meeting with Chadha.

“The CMA’s position on asbestos is clear: we are opposed to mining, use and export of asbestos,” it added.

Chadha promises to be more active in defending trade of a hazardous substance that has been the subject of devastating critiques from sources as diverse as medical doctors to foreign comedy programs in Australia and, in the U.S., with Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.

Chadha rejects the premise that mining the substance, today in Canada, will lead to painful cancer deaths abroad in future decades.

He insists it can be handled safely – even in developing countries, where the bulk of Canadian asbestos exports are shipped.

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“We have nothing to hide and we want to change the perception,” Chadha told The Canadian Press in an interview at his Montreal-area office.

“We have the moral persuasion and consciousness that, yes, we do have a good case and we will give it our best effort possible.”

Industry opponents have long been mobilized, pounding the industry with waves of criticism from health experts, activists and asbestos victims.

Critics of the sector, which include dozens of physicians and several recognized medical associations, have repeatedly urged the Conservative government to halt all mining and exports of the substance. They say it’s immoral to export the product to so many poorer countries with inadequate safety standards.

The Harper government has also come under fire for helping to block asbestos from being added to a United Nations international hazardous-chemicals list in June.

Use of the substance, meanwhile, remains regulated in Canada, where millions of dollars have been spent to carefully remove loose asbestos that was stuffed decades ago into homes, schools and even the Parliament buildings.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 100,000 people die around the world every year from asbestos-related disease.

But Chadha insists that poor practices are a thing of the past and, as with many hazardous materials, significant strides have been made in handling this mineral safely.

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“There’s a lot of noise… The past and the present are getting all mixed up,” said Chadha, who’s been selling Canadian chrysotile asbestos in India for nearly two decades.

Chadha has, as ammunition, his longstanding reputation as a businessman, philanthropist and a member of Canada’s prestigious Queen’s Privy Council.

He proudly notes that for 35 years, his company, Balcorp Ltd., has also been selling nuts, dried fruits, lumber and pulp-and-paper products to India and other parts of Asia. Chadha has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Montreal’s Concordia University, where he also sits on the board of governors.

He insists that he has made every effort to ensure chrysotile asbestos is sold only to corporations that handle the material in hygienic environments.

Chadha also said he intends to monitor inventory flows of his customers to prevent them from selling the asbestos to “mom and pop” operations with poor safety standards.

While asbestos is barely used in Canada anymore due to health concerns, Chadha said it’s popular in poor countries like India where the fibres are often mixed with cement to make low-cost, durable roofs for small homes.

Chadha added that scientific studies have shown chrysotile asbestos – the only type mined in Canada – isn’t as dangerous as the deadlier amphibole form. Other medical experts, meanwhile, argue that chrysotile is hazardous and cannot be used safely.

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Swaying his sharpest critics won’t be easy.

The NDP’s Martin, himself a former asbestos miner, said that Chadha is wasting his time visiting his office, but agreed to meet with him “as a courtesy.”

“It would take an army to change my mind about the morally and ethically reprehensible export of asbestos to Third World countries,” he said.

“I hate the asbestos industry – I think they’re the face of evil.”

Martin, who said he’s been fighting to shut down the Canadian asbestos sector since he was first elected in 1997, thinks Chadha’s request to meet with him smacks of desperation.

Chadha said the timing of his publicity campaign is simply a result of not having the time to focus on it until now.

But his Ottawa meetings will take place just days before an important date in his bid to extend the life of the Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos for another 20 years. He said the extension is expected to create more than 500 much-needed jobs in the region.

The Quebec government has agreed to guarantee a $58 million bank loan for the mining project, as long as a consortium led by Chadha can raise $25 million from investors. The province set Oct. 1 as the deadline for the controversial decision, but it has already delayed previous cutoff dates.

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Chadha acknowledged that the efforts of anti-asbestos campaigners have made attracting investors a challenge. He said some have been scared off by the controversy.

He is also pushing back against his critics, personally.

Without naming anyone specifically, Chadha speculated that some must be funded by groups with vested interests – such as producers of synthetic chrysotile alternatives, American lawyers involved in multimillion-dollar lawsuits, or asbestos-removal companies.

That theme is prominent in an ad Chadha plans to run in French and English publications. The ad not only says that everyone inhales thousands of asbestos fibres each day without any effect; it also questions the financial motives of the industry’s critics.

“It really makes one wonder as to why certain people, or certain organizations, are so determined in organizing different events and doing publicity and media,” Chadha said in an interview.

“All of this costs money. Who’s funding it?”

He did not offer any evidence to back his theories.

Ruff is perhaps the most dedicated asbestos-industry opponent in Canada. She says she’s just a retiree who has volunteered her time to her cause and has never drawn a personal profit from it.

“It’s a very serious allegation to make and I think, to my mind, it’s a tactic that’s commonly used to try and avoid the argument, the issue, the facts,” Ruff said in an interview.

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“There’s not a single, reputable public-health, medical or scientific organization in Canada or in the world that supports the position that Mr. Chadha has put forward.”

Since he became involved in the Jeffrey project about a year ago, Chadha has also found himself at the centre of controversy.

He was criticized earlier this year after The Canadian Press revealed that he hosted a 2009 fundraiser for the provincial Liberals at his mansion in Montreal’s upper-class Westmount area. Quebec Premier Jean Charest attended the cocktail, which raised $19,000 for the party.

Chadha counters by saying there was nothing wrong with holding the event, which took place before he got involved in the Jeffrey Mine project.

“It was done purely to have the Indian community of Montreal meet the premier – beyond that, there was nothing to it,” he said.

In January, he also held a $500-a-head fundraiser at his home for then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who publicly opposed Canadian asbestos exports.

“I didn’t try to interfere,” he said of Ignatieff.

“So, it just shows that these two things are totally unrelated.”