Welcome to Asbestos

Touching asbestos doesn't scare Pierrette Théroux, founder of the Asbestos Historical Society. As a child, she woke to dustings of asbestos, fallen overnight like snow.
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Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec.

Jeffrey Mine in Asbestos, Quebec.

On an August afternoon in Asbestos, Quebec, I sip my tasting glasses, arranged from light to bitter. Ciel Ouvert—open pit—is the India pale ale. Nutty and aromatic, it was originally brewed with spring water that pools at the bottom of the town's old asbestos mine. When young entrepreneurs opened Moulin 7—now a World Beer Award-winning microbrewery—in 2014, they scavenged decor from the town's namesake industry. A sign on the restroom door commands: "Wear your respirator in this zone."

Asbestos sits on the shores of the Nicolet River and Les Trois-Lacs, and is nestled between rolling, green Appalachian hills. Since its heyday in the 1980s, the population has fallen by half, to 7,099 residents. People predicted that it would disappear from the map altogether before 2016, but here it stands. The bullet hole in the town's heart is Jeffrey Mine. Deeper than the Eiffel Tower is tall, it was once the world's biggest open-pit mine. With its closure in 2012, Asbestos lost its purpose: excavating dangerous "white gold" and exporting it to the world. The mine-themed brewery is one of the projects funded by $50 million worth of economic diversification loans from the provincial government. Like Salem, Massachusetts, Asbestos hopes to squeeze a future out of its unsavory past.

Many residents don't want to abandon the town's name or its symbols. They believe that outsiders attacked a heritage industry. "They're hypocrites," says Pierrette Théroux, 78, founder of the Asbestos Historical Society, which sits in the basement of the town's library, not far from the brewery. "It's not funny, the story of propaganda. For every product, there's a pro and a con." NASA, she points out proudly, has used the town's asbestos in its spacecraft.

Touching asbestos doesn't scare her. As a child, she woke to dustings of asbestos, fallen overnight like snow. She passes me a trophy from her desk, mounted with a chunk of asbestos the size of a golf ball, which she strokes. Then she leads me to a tin pail full of larger asbestos rocks. She crouches and chooses one. "They're heavy." From the rock's surface, she plucks out a thread of silken fluff. "See, it looks like cotton."

According to Théroux, everyone in town knows asbestos is harmless unless breathed in. "Yes, it's real that asbestos is poison," she says. "But when it's well handled, when it's sealed in cement pipes, the asbestos that's inside is no longer alive—it can no longer attack your lungs."

"Of course there are people here who died of asbestosis. But not everyone."

Théroux scans the archival photos covering the walls. Almost nothing pictured still exists. She explains that buildings, including her childhood home, were "eaten by the mine" as it expanded. But she recalls the rich, cultured town of her youth, a worldly destination where "25 nationalities" lived side by side. There were women draped in furs and evenings spent at the cinema, theater, or sports arena—all of which were owned by the mine.

The town crest is a salamander, engulfed by flames but never burnt. "Mythic like the phoenix," Théroux says. "The salamander—you can cut off one foot, but another regrows."

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Today, white paint peels off a building marked "Asbestos Inc." A Rolls-Royce rusts in a closed dealership. Rock music drifts out of a boarded-up church. But beyond the trailer homes, overgrown lots, and abandoned gas station are attempts to reinstate a cosmopolitan Asbestos: I pass yoga and CrossFit studios, clapboard houses accented with bright pinks and greens, manicured flowerbeds, and hand-painted lawn decorations.

In June of 2017, the city launched a geocaching app to lead people around tourist attractions. I pose for a photo beside the first stop, a 190-ton, 24-foot-long orange truck that carried ore and marks the entry to town. A picnic table sits in its shade, and children climb up its massive tires.

This photograph originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Walking the town's main drag, I navigate through a maze of orange pylons; $3.9 million worth of roadwork has commenced in an effort to beautify and modernize downtown. Chaibia Hainoussi greets me as I stop by her boutique, Friperie des Sources. She opened it two years ago, after moving from Morocco to Canada and spending her first few years in nearby Sherbrooke. Pregnant with her second child, she didn't want to raise her family in an apartment, so she decided to relocate to Asbestos. "I saw that the city where it was the cheapest to buy a house was Asbestos," she explains. "Asbestos is different. People are a real family."

The app eventually leads tourists a few blocks up a hill to the town's biggest draw: the mine itself. I meet up with a tour guide named Michel des Fossées, and together we drive through the front gate. A tattered Canadian flag hangs beside it. Des Fossées worked for 45 years as a foreman in the mine, so he knows his way around. He hands me a hard hat as I climb into his pick-up truck. We drive past the deserted company buildings—pockmarked by smashed windows—and into a landscape of flat-topped hills that stretch in every direction. These are the mine tailings, now covered with grass and wildflowers. Even trees sprout from rock. "It's become a forest," he observes.

In the center of all this is the pit, which is filled with a turquoise pool of water. We descend the spiral road to the water's edge, park the car, and walk to the shoreline. Des Fossées points to a now-submerged giant blue door, where he used to enter the tunnels to get to his work site. Terraced cliffs loom above us, slippery with trickling waterfalls.

Vultures circle overhead. "Can birds drink the water?" I ask. "Of course," he laughs. "So can we. Try."

I dip my hand in the cool water but don't dare.

Des Fossées tells me there's talk of introducing rainbow trout to this pond. He motions to the ground beside me and begins imagining another sunny day. "Take a seat, a snack in the afternoon, under the bluffs. Listen to the water flow in, flow out." He closes his eyes. "Calm. Tranquil. Ah."

Before we leave, des Fossées drives me to the top of a mine tailing. We get out of the car and continue on foot through wild barley stalks, following deer tracks to a vista point. It overlooks the whole town.

"We don't want this mine to rest in desolation," des Fossées says. "Oh, no. Look at that. When people come, they'll see that it's very, very beautiful."

Out of the corner of my eye, I see rocks sparkle. Des Fossées says we're surrounded by gold, silver, quartz, crystal, jade. And, of course, asbestos. I try to breathe lightly. He finds a stone and places it in my hand as a parting gift: "garnet."

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In high school, the mayor of Asbestos passed the time by riding his BMX bike through the mine. Now Hugues Grimard is transforming Asbestos into a playground for tourists. On top of being mayor, Grimard directs a sleepaway music camp for children and an RV vacation park, where he lives in a riverfront house set behind a fry shack and a mini golf course. Tourists who stay at his vacation park can enjoy golfing, boating, hiking, and horseback riding. Next week, he says, the town is throwing a "gourmands" food festival.

"My memories of growing up here are of a single-industry town, of a town where young people graduated and left to work somewhere else"—90 percent of his classmates, he estimates. But, he says, "They're going to return. Lots of friends are calling me up, asking for an opportunity."

He's chosen a new municipal slogan: "Live here to the fullest."

"We have a new pride that we lost," he insists. "We're no longer in the past. We're looking to a positive future. We're proud of our past, but we really want to develop the future because we've completely changed the image of the region."

To do this, Grimard is rebranding the mine as a sustainable development hub. The scarred terrain, he says, is "full of possibilities: 400 million tons of mineral residue, ready to be exploited." Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in December of 2016 that the country would ban the use of asbestos by 2018, he pledged millions toward a local "mining innovation center," which will help a company called Mag One Products process magnesium extracted from the old mine. The center will operate in a new industrial park, a grid of streets—bearing names like Rue de l'Amiante (Asbestos Street) and Rue de l'Ardoise (Slate Street)—designed to attract other commercial businesses: hydrometallurgy, pharmacology, even duck slaughtering. In October of 2017, Grimard proudly tells me, Asbestos will host an eco-materials conference.

He pulls out his cell phone to show me a picture of his six-year-old. "What I do, I do for my daughter. And the other children of the future."

The sun sets as I follow the faint sound of music to a community hall next to the mayor's house. A thunderstorm has cleared, leaving orange clouds. Tonight's party is Halloween in August. Fred Flintstone arrives in a jeep, towing a jet ski. A ketchup bottle starts line dancing.

Michel Normand, hardware store employee by day and DJ by night, wears a black cowboy hat. He hits play on a disco track and begins to sing. Soon, everyone joins in: "We're born, born, born to be alive!"

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. It was first published online on April 30th, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.

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