Report: Mercury poison levels in Grassy Narrows still in highest risk category

grassy narrows

Mercury levels rising in the sediment of some lakes

Grassy Narrows:  A newly released government commissioned report has found that mercury levels in the sediment of Grassy Narrows’ Wabigoon River remain up to 20 times above natural levels, while fish are up to 15 times above consumption guideline levels.  This places the river above the frequent adverse effects level – the highest risk threshold used by Environment Canada to trigger remediation in the St. Lawrence environmental risk assessment.  The Wabigoon River is the site of one of Canada’s most infamous ongoing environmental health disasters which began when 9,000 kg of mercury were dumped by a paper mill upstream in the 1960’s.  No clean-up has been done even though multiple generations of Grassy Narrows families have been poisoned by the mercury.

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Fact Sheet
Sellers report key findings on Grassy Narrows’ River

“When we shared our land and water we expected it to be kept pristine, but they have failed and destroyed our culture as a result,” said Chief Roger Fobister Sr.  “We want that mercury cleaned up.  There is no way around it because it is a sacred trust to take care of our land.” 

Shockingly, the report finds that in Ball Lake, close to Grassy Narrows, the mercury concentration in the surface sediment has been steadily increasing.  This means that the sediment accumulating at the surface is higher in mercury now than it was in the 1970s.  The report warns that all other downstream basins have the potential to increase over time to a level above which adverse biological effects are expected and an in depth analysis of remediation options is needed. 

“I believe some babies in our community continue to be born sick because of the mercury poison that is still in the river,” said Judy Da Silva, Grassy Narrows environmental health coordinator and a mother of five.  “These children did not choose this legacy of poisoning they have inherited. The only thing that will bring them justice is to clean the river and give the Anishinabek accessible mercury disability payments.”

The report notes that people have been adversely affected for multiple generations and that children in Grassy Narrows have been diagnosed as having symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning.  To date, there is no ongoing surveillance program among children exposed to mercury prenatally despite the widespread recognition that fetuses are most at risk of permanent damage to the brain from mercury exposure, even at low levels.

Despite the ongoing mercury crisis in Grassy Narrows, Ontario has approved a plan for a decade of industrial clearcut logging in Grassy Narrows’ forest.  The report notes that several studies have shown that logging significantly contributes to enhanced export of mercury to downstream boreal ecosystems and aquatic food webs in lakes.

The report was completed in December 2014 but was kept confidential until its author, Professor Sellers, could present the report to the community in Grassy Narrows on June 12.

Download the full report