Knee Deep in Asbestos

When I was 17 old I started working at an asbestos mine in the Yukon. I had the excitement of youth and looked on the thing as a big adventure.

The mine was located about 7 miles from the Alaska border on the banks of the Forty Mile River, which emptied into the Yukon River some 5 miles or so north.

I first arrived in August and started working on the Surface Crew. This was the group responsible for outside maintenance of all things on the surface. This was fine when we had those few relatively warm days in summer, but later it was a bit more difficult to be working outside in minus 55F.

One of my first duties was to keep clear the conveyor that took the unused asbestos out to the tailings piles. Tailings piles are basically the dregs of what’s left over after milling the asbestos and is run out of the mill on conveyor belts to large piles behind the mill. At that time they were about 100 feet high.

I was given a shovel, and a small mask (kind of like the little paper ones that painters use) and told to go shovel off the conveyor belt on the tailings piles. Dutifully I climbed up with my little shovel to clear any blockages of asbestos from the conveyor. I remember clearly at one point standing literally knee deep in asbestos on top of this 100 foot high pile and looking inside my very poor quality mask and seeing the inside (where it’s not supposed to be) all grey from the asbestos dust. I then took out my hankerchief (yes, I carried one) and blew my nose. Sorry for the rude, graphic description, but it was all grey. And that was my introduction to work at an asbestos mine.

Even back in the early 1970’s it was becoming known that asbestos caused problems. Working in the mine we’d get brochures handed around periodically with propoganda about how it was never proven that asbestos was actually harmful. They were beautiful glossy brochures. I wish I’d kept one.

Though I had occasion to go into the mill for various reasons I was glad I didn’t work there. There were employees that worked in the mill whose sole job was to sweep up the dust that fell on the floor. There was so much of it that this was a constant ongoing job. The asbestos dust in the mill actually fell almost like snow and covered the floor completely. Without sweepers there would probably have been several inches of asbestos dust on the floor within an hour or so. In fact, I remember seeing sweepers go by pushing their wide brooms and the new dust settling onto the floor behind them as they walked.

The Yukon itself was absolutely beautiful. Stunning in fact. I had many great experiences there and saw some natural wonders I couldn’t have seen anywhere else. I had hitchiked up the Alaska Highway with a friend. In those days the highway was unpaved. Most of the trip was provided by a nice family who were travelling in an old converted school bus. Rattle and dust. Rattle and dust. But we made it finally to Whitehorse, and then on to Dawson City. I loved Dawson. It was like stepping into the past. Not just the architecture and homes but the people had that old fashion friendliness and charm, though tempered by a resolve that one must have to live in such a fierce environment.

The Yukon has a peace fullness to it. Almost a serenity that one can feel. I’ve found that only those who have been there and experienced it fully understand what I mean by this.

In all of this beauty I suppose the asbestos mine was a blight, or cancer on the environment. Fortunately closed down now for many years nature is recovering it’s territory, but unfortunately asbestos mining has left a legacy of asbestos is and Mesothelioma with some of it’s previous employees. There are many resources available with information, legal, and personal (www.mesothelioma-listings.com) but one shouldn’t let something that consumes the body, also consume the soul. Being human is to be somewhat fragile to the vagarities of life as it is. There’s plenty of ‘drama’ going on without us spending all of our energies on blame. Be calm. Remember your duty in life is to help others. Be happy and try to improve life around you.

As I type this I am looking out the window, watching my grandchildren learn to fish off the seawall out back. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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