Grassy Narrows First Nation wants to test mill area for mercury contamination

The Chief of Grassy Narrows is requesting access to conduct his own mercury-contamination tests. Meanwhile, the federal NDP is asking Justin Trudeau to get involved.

Simon Fobister, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation, wrote a letter to Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray and Domtar saying the site around an old paper mill needs to be tested for mercury contamination. Domtar is the company that now owns the land.

Simon Fobister, chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation, wrote a letter to Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray and Domtar saying the site around an old paper mill needs to be tested for mercury contamination. Domtar is the company that now owns the land.  (TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

The chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation is requesting access to the site of the old Dryden paper mill so that he can bring his own experts to test an area where contaminated soil was recently found.

“This site and surrounding areas need to be tested immediately so that we can . . . assess the extent of the contamination,” Chief Simon Fobister Sr. wrote in a letter addressed to Ontario’s environment minister and Domtar, the company that now owns the land. “It is critical that our First Nation lead those studies so that we may trust in the results.”

Meanwhile, federal New Democrat MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) has written a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointing out the Star’s recent investigation that found the contaminated soil near the mill, and asking the prime minister to meet with Grassy Narrows leaders and commit to cleaning up the mercury.

Until now, much of the pressure to do something about the mercury problem in Grassy Narrows has been directed at the provincial government. The site of the old mill, Grassy Narrows and the affected part of the English-Wabigoon River system are all in northwestern Ontario. The federal government, however, has a responsibility for the health and well-being of indigenous people in Canada, advocates say.

“The community of Grassy Narrows has written to you three times over the past year to no response,” Angus says in his letter to Trudeau. “Your government’s disinterest (in) this social environmental catastrophe is truly shocking.” In March, May and September of last year, Grassy Narrows leaders invited Trudeau to come to their community and announce a cleanup.

Both Fobister’s request for site access and Angus’s letter to Trudeau were sent after it was revealed Friday that the Star and volunteers from an environmental group dug holes in a clearing behind the old paper mill in Dryden and found significantly higher-than-normal levels of mercury — nearly 80 times the level expected to be found in soil from that region of the province.

A Domtar spokesperson did not answer questions from the Star but said the company had responded to the chief directly. The Star obtained a copy of that letter, which says that if the province decides additional site testing is necessary, “a representative” from Grassy Narrows will be invited to “accompany and observe” the environment ministry’s work.

The samples were taken from an area circled on a map by retired mill worker Kas Glowacki, who said that in 1972 he was part of a group of workers who “haphazardly” dumped drums filled with salt and mercury into a pit behind the mill.


Late last year, the province’s environment minister said they had looked for the barrels and concluded they did not exist. On Monday, a ministry spokesperson said officials had already been in touch with Glowacki and Fobister “to discuss the new information and most appropriate actions going forward.”

“We take this latest information seriously and will work with the community to conduct additional testing, which may include further geophysical studies and soil sampling, in the newly identified area,” said spokesperson Gary Wheeler. “This will include co-ordinating again with Grassy Narrows First Nation and Domtar for joint access to the property to undertake appropriate sampling and study work.”

The contaminated soil does not prove the existence of the alleged dump site but is enough to warrant further attention from professionals, experts say. A fuller investigation, they say, would help determine whether this mercury was spilled on the ground, if it is flowing sideways through groundwater, or if it is moving up from a source below. It is also not known if this mercury is contaminating the river system.

Mercury has not been used in paper production at the site in decades, and there is no suggestion that current mill operator, Domtar, several owners removed from Reed Paper, is responsible for any possible ongoing source of mercury.

What is known is that between 1962 and 1970 the former paper mill — then owned by Reed Paper — dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River, contaminating the fish and sickening generations who rely on walleye as a dietary staple.

Despite a call from the provincial environment minister in 1984 to clean up the river, the government of the day decided to let it clean itself up naturally.

More than four decades on, dangerous and persistently high levels of mercury in the sediment and fish in the river system suggest there is an ongoing source. The river and lake near Grassy Narrows are home to the most mercury-contaminated fish in the province.

Physical symptoms of mercury poisoning include loss of muscle co-ordination and tunnel vision. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cognitive damage, according to recent research. A recent study done by Japanese experts concluded that 90 per cent of people tested in Grassy Narrows and nearby White Dog have a symptom of mercury poisoning.

In his letter to the environment minister, Fobister requests funding from the province to hire experts to test the area near the mill.

“This is an urgent concern for us,” he says. “We rely on the fish from that river for our culture and our livelihood.”

Angus, the NDP critic for Indigenous Affairs, acknowledges in his letter to Trudeau that although present governments are not responsible for the “environmental crisis that has inflicted such damage over the last four decades,” the prime minister has “the power and the authority to help make things right.”

Adds Angus: “On the 150th anniversary of Canada, the Grassy Narrows cleanup remains a part of the unfinished business of a dark legacy in our country. On behalf of the community, I am asking you to meet with them and to commit to a full investigation and remediation in order to provide a hopeful future for the coming generations.”