In the next few days, the Brazilian Supreme Court will decide whether to prohibit the export of asbestos.
At stake are thousands of jobs, the ruin of a city, its population and the survival of a company, the Eternit group.
The controversy over asbestos is already known.
In November 2017, the Brazilian Supreme Court banned the extraction, industrialization and commercialization of chrysotile asbestos all over Brazil, after analysing a Rio de Janeiro state law of 2001. An injunction granted shortly thereafter allowed SAMA — the only asbestos mine in Brazil — to continue operating until a few weeks ago, when appeals were filed requesting clarifications to the ruling.
The current debate is no longer about allowing or not the commercialization of chrysotile mineral fiber in Brazil, as it has already been shut down by the industry. The debate is now whether the mine will remain closed, or whether its shareholders will be able to find a responsible social and environmental solution through exports.
In operation since 1967 in Goiás state, SAMA is one of the three largest mines in the world to extract chrysotile asbestos. It is considered a global benchmark for safety standards and social and environmental responsibility, and it often plays host to specialists from all over the world.
However, its extraction and production activities for export had to be interrupted on February 11 to comply with the Supreme Court decision. At this time, SAMA awaits the Court’s ruling on the request for suspensive effects filed by various entities representing the sector.
The future of the mine is still uncertain. The risk of an ill-considered legal decision, which could determine its immediate closure, is a major concern. This would make it impossible for the company to carry out the procedures in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The city of Minaçu, where the mine is located, depends on the mining activity as its main source of income and employment.
No Brazilian manufacturer uses asbestos as a raw material anymore, not even the fiber cement industry, which has already replaced the chrysotile mineral fiber with synthetic fiber, including in tile manufacturing.
The problem is that, as the Court’s decision was written, the ban also covers the mining activity for exports. Brazil has become the first and only producer of chrysotile asbestos all over the world to prohibit the extraction and exports, even though the mine has an estimated reserve for another 40 years.
SAMA’s annual production of 120,000 tons is destined exclusively to the foreign market, which restricts the handling of the product to plant’s premises, which are regularly inspected by the authorities. The exports go to customers in dozens of countries — such as United States, Germany, India, Indonesia and Malaysia — where the product is allowed for civil construction and industrial applications. International demand is large and has been growing in recent years. Customers are on standby and if there is no quick definition in the next few days, the company will not be able to keep the mine stopped, forcing it to fire its employees and stop meeting the terms of international contracts.
The company would like to still acting in a responsible way and generating wealth for the country. One of the alternatives would be to authorize only the production for exportation. Another possibility is that the mine has an extended period of operation. The correct and sustainable closing of asbestos mine requires investments and an estimated time in more than 10 years.
Between the 1980s and 1990s, industries that used chrysotile asbestos as a raw material transformed their mines and invested heavily in technology and equipment so their employees could work in a safe environment, eliminating exposure to fiber. Therefore, the working conditions that prevailed from the 30s to the 60s, and that could cause some risk, no longer exist.
The awards that SAMA has received in recent years — the 2nd place among the Best Companies to Work in Latin America in 2018 — are a recognition that cannot be ignored, as well as its commitment to environmental preservation in the region. About 80% of the area of ​​4,500 hectares under concession are being preserved as a Forest and Legal Reserve, which protects the land from possible invaders.
The Eternit Group, owner of SAMA since 1997, has made tough decisions after filing for protection from creditors on March 19 2018 in order to preserve the continuity of the group’s activities and its social function, fulfilling commitments made to our customers, suppliers, creditors and shareholders, and in order to mitigate operational risks.
The company now awaits the Supreme Court decision and hopes for a fair and responsible analysis of the arguments made in the embargoes filed by our industry representatives.