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Heart of Canada's asbestos country reinvents itself

Canada: 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 center that develops industrial products from vegetable oils and animals fats, rather than oil byproducts.

The oleochemistry center, 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 favored 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 inhabitants some 240 kilometers (150 miles) 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 center 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.

AFP

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