Hidden poison

Industrial mercury contamination discovered upstream from Grassy Narrows

Volunteers find industrial mercury contamination upstream from Grassy Narrows, an Ontario reserve where 300 people have been poisoned

An environmental non-profit group is calling on the Ontario government to investigate after it found evidence of industrial mercury contamination upstream from the Grassy Narrows First Nation, where more than 300 people have been diagnosed with mercury poisoning.

Last summer, former Dryden paper mill worker Kas Glowacki blew the whistle on a mercury dumping site near a river about 100 km upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation. In the fall, Glowacki circled a spot on an aerial photograph where he remembered burying barrels of mercury, leading a team of volunteers with the group Earthroots to the approximate site, Gord Miller, the former Ontario environmental commissioner now member of Earthroots, told reporters Friday morning.

The volunteers dug a pit and collected 43 soil samples from the site and sent them to a lab at the University of Western Ontario for analysis. The lab report provided to VICE News shows mercury levels in the soil as high as 3979.845 ng/g.  

“There is no reasonable explanation for that level of mercury to occur on forested land in northwestern Ontario,” Miller said. He said it was “a clear hotspot, a clear indication of something found.”

Earthroots is calling for a comprehensive geotechnical survey of the site.

“What this does is it highlights the fact there is mercury contamination on the site. The question now is, to what extent, and is it moving into the water?” said Brian Branfireun, a professor at the University of Western Ontario and the director of the lab that tested the samples. He said the levels found in the pit the volunteers dug are “at least 10 times higher than what we would expect to see in soil, and in these kinds of soil it’s probably more like 100 times higher.”

It’s not possible based on the numbers alone to say whether the elevated mercury found at the site is contributing to mercury poisoning downstream, Branfireun explained, but he said the numbers demand further investigation.

Members of the Grassy Narrows First Nations demonstrate on Queen's Park steps in Toronto against mercury poisoning in 1975.

Members of the Grassy Narrows First Nations demonstrate on Queen’s Park steps in Toronto against mercury poisoning in 1975.Photo by Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

High mercury levels have been found in the sediment in the river system that runs past Grassy Narrows. In the 1960s and 70s, the Dryden paper mill dumped mercury into the river system. Although mercury levels from industrial causes usually decline over time, the levels in the river system have remained elevated, which could point at seepage from a hidden site, Branfireun said.

Mercury has bio-accumulated to reach dangerous levels in the fish, including Walleye, which are prized by locals. For years, Grassy Narrows members and those along the river system have called on the province to clean up the river system, but so far the province has made no such commitment.

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change wrote in an email that in June 2016, Glowacki gave ministry officials a detailed account of where he believed the barrels were buried, and they investigated but found no evidence of mercury contamination or barrels.

However, the location he gave them differs from the location he gave Earthroots.

“The Ministry takes this new information seriously,” the spokesperson told VICE News. “We will carefully review the data Earthroots has provided on the new site and take appropriate investigative action.”

It’s been 40 to 50 years since Glowacki said he buried the mercury. According to aerial photos from that time provided by Earthroots, the site was in use, with roads and excavation, but now it is overgrown with new forest, and therefore harder to locate.

Asked whether Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne would order another search of the mill property and commit to cleaning up any mercury that is found, the premier’s office declined to comment, instead directing VICE News to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Grassy Narrows chief Simon Fobister couldn’t be reached by phone Friday.