ON misled public with baseless claim of mercury clean-up risk in Grassy Narrows

FreeGrassy-0304Government provides no evidence that recommended clean up would be risky. Minister recommended Grassy Narrows mercury clean up to cabinet in 1984. Scientists safely achieved ten-fold reduction in mercury in 1980s Wabigoon study.


Toronto – For months Premier Wynne has insisted that she strongly wants to clean up Grassy Narrows First Nation’s mercury poisoned river, but repeatedly she has warned that a clean up could do harm by stirring up buried mercury.  On Monday, a Toronto Star investigation revealed that Wynne’s repeated warnings of remediation risks are without basis in fact. 

When asked by the Star for evidence of the risks posed by the mercury clean up methods recommended by scientists for Grassy Narrows’ river, the government did not provide “any scientific evidence cautioning against these methods”. 

“I feel lied to.  Over and over Wynne has said that a clean up could hurt us, when all this time there was no evidence for that,” said mother Chrissy Swain from Grassy Narrows.  “No more excuses, no more tricks, we need a promise to clean our river now so that our children can be safe.” 

Recently unearthed archival documents show that the Minister of the Environment recommended a mercury clean up to cabinet in 1984 following the advice of an expert panel of scientists hired by the federal and provincial governments.  It appears that cabinet killed the clean up plan, acting against the best advice of scientists.  Government scientists did not study clean up options again until this year, when a government funded expert report released on May 30th recommended remediation using some of the same safe methods recommended by the minister in 1984.

“I am disturbed to find out that the government of the day did not act on their own Minister of the Environment’s recommendation that the river should be cleaned up,” said Chief Simon Fobister Sr.  “It is long past time that Ontario finally committed to clean up our river before any more people get sick.”

Instead of implementing the Minister’s recommendation for a clean up, the government has for over 30 years warned about the risks posed by large scale dredging.  However, the remediation plan for the Wabigoon River released on May 30th proposes a number of clean up methods that do not involve dredging, nor do they disturb the sediment at all.  Large scale dredging is not recommended in the report. 

“We recommended how to clean-up the river after our studies were completed in the 1980’s,” said Dr. Rudd a key research scientist for the government’s English-Wabigoon River Steering Committee in the 1980’s. “More than 30 years later, after much further research, I’m even more convinced that these remedies will work.”

Three generations of Grassy Narrows people, including children, continue to be diagnosed with the life-altering symptoms of mercury poisoning more than 50 years after the Dryden mill began dumping 9,000 kg of untreated mercury waste into the Wabigoon River. Fishing is a central part of Grassy Narrows’ culture and has provided sustenance, livelihood, and meaning for countless generations of Grassy Narrows people. The collapse of fishing as a result of mercury poisoning has created massive unemployment in the community. Social services are underfunded and youth suicides are on the rise – an outcome of generations of government and corporate injustice committed against this formerly self-sufficient and healthy Indigenous nation. 

All three of the 1984 science report, the minister’s 1984 recommendation to cabinet, and the expert report released on May 30th recommend a remediation method called “clean clay suspension.”  This involves taking clean clay sediment from upstream of the infamous Dryden mill and injecting it into the contaminated river water.  The clean clay would be carried downstream by the river and would settle out like a fine dust wherever mercury contaminated sediments are located.  Once any ongoing sources of mercury are shut off this clean clay would safely bury the mercury, while also binding to it, thereby removing it from the food chain. 

Government funded scientists tested the clean clay suspension method through a pilot project in Clay Lake on the Wabigoon River in the 1980s.  They achieved a ten-fold reduction in mercury levels in fish.  The method had no negative side effects and absolutely no risk of disturbing old mercury laden sediments.

“In 1984 my colleagues and I reported to the government that Grassy Narrows’ fish would remain contaminated for generations if the river was not cleaned up,” said Dr. Rudd. “Our recommendations to clean the river were not followed and our troubling prediction has proven correct.”

“My expert opinion is that mercury levels in Grassy Narrows’ fish can be brought down to a safe level using quite benign techniques,” says Dr. John Rudd, also the recent report’s senior author. “Without remediation the fish will likely stay unsafe to eat for the foreseeable future. Fish in Clay Lake on the Wabigoon River remain among the most contaminated fish in Canada.”


Source documents, high-res photos, BRroll are available.  Email: riverrun2010@gmail.com


Recent statements by Premier Wynne:

“I am willing to look for ways to remediate the situation, if that is at all possible. I’m deadly serious about this. I want this to happen,” Wynne said Monday at Queen’s Park…

Wynne has repeatedly said she has been cautioned by scientists that remediation risked making the problem worse, and she reiterated that concern Monday.

“When I was minister of aboriginal affairs . . . I was told, and have consistently been told that to stir up the mercury that is in the sediment in this water could further contaminate the ecosystem. I am not willing to do more damage.”

The Toronto Star, Monday June 27, 2016.


“If we can find a way to remove mercury from the sediment in the bottom of the lakes or the river and remove that from the ecosystem without disturbing that mercury so it actually makes the situation worse, which is what scientists had told us previously, then we will move on that. You know it is absolutely critical to me that we undo that damage if we can, but I am not going to authorize an action that is going to make the situation worse. You know, I’m not going to authorize an action that is going to mean that there would be more mercury in the system. We’re trying to sort this through and I know that the mercury from that contamination decades ago; if there is a way of removing it, we’ll find it.”

Scrum statement in response to question the Toronto Star, June 21, 2016.


“I want there to be science that we can use to clean up the sediment and clean up the water and make sure that ecosystem is clean. We have a report now that suggests that there may be a way of doing that… It’s not clear on exactly how to do that without disturbing the sediment and making the situation worse.

That’s the question we have to answer. I do not want to make the situation worse.”

Hansard, June 2, 2016.


“There are a lot of difficult questions,” Wynne said. “The scientists have said to us there are questions about how to actually do the cleanup because moving the sediment at the bottom can actually cause further damage. So we have to be very careful.”

CBC, Wynne Premier Kathleen Wynne won’t commit to Grassy Narrows mercury cleanup, June 16, 2015