Domtar officials maintain that the company is co-operating fully with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) which is looking for possible hot spots of mercury contamination near the Dryden mill.
“We continue to co-operate fully with the MOECC to provide representatives with access to our mill site,” company spokesperson Bonny Skene said Thursday.
“As extended previously, we welcome a representative from Grassy Narrows First Nation to accompany the MOECC on site and witness any activities or work done.”
Volunteers from the environmental group Earthroots, which has long advocated for Grassy Narrows, recently found high levels of mercury in soil samples at a site near the Wabigoon River. The site had been identified by a former worker at the Dryden mill who said last year that he had buried more than 50 barrels of mercury and salt in a pit in 1972.
And, Grassy Narrows leaders said last week that they had not gotten permission yet to access mill property to conduct a search themselves.
After learning of the Earthroots find, Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister called for immediate access to the mill site for Grassy Narrows’ experts to investigate, and for the Wynne and Trudeau governments to clean up any mercury contamination that is found.
Mercury is a potent neuro-toxin that damages the brain and nervous system leading to loss of vision, touch, balance, and coordination as well as learning disabilities with lifelong impacts.
“I am shocked to hear that mercury contaminated soil has been found behind the mill after Ontario assured us that the hidden mercury dump reported by (former mill worker) Kas Glowacki did not exist,” said Fobister. “We need an immediate investigation into mercury at the whole Dryden mill site by our trusted experts to tell us whether we are in danger from mercury dumps and leaks. We live downstream from that area and we rely on the fish from the river.”
Ministry spokesman Gary Wheeler said Thursday that the ministry remains “fully committed to working with the community to find solutions to mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system.
“Ministry officials have already been in touch with both Chief Fobister and Mr. Glowacki to discuss the new information and most appropriate actions going forward,” Wheeler said. “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.
“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. In addition, MOECC scientists will carefully review the data Earthroots has provided from the new site,” he added.
Consistent with the recommendations of the report commissioned by Grassy Narrows First Nations, Ontario is also working with the community to collect the necessary data required to help assess the present-day state of mercury in the English-Wabigoon River system.
The Grassy Narrows council identified this field work as their top priority, which is needed to support discussions on appropriate approaches for remediation.
Wheeler noted that the province has already committed $300,000 for environmental work on the river system.
An additional $300,000 was also committed to assist with the ongoing work of the Mercury Working Group. This joint field work will provide the critical information needed to develop options to remediate the river system.
“Ontario will work with Chief Fobister and the community to develop this key piece,” he said, adding that “the English-Wabigoon Remediation Project will consider Traditional Ecological Knowledge and respect for the traditions and wisdom of the local First Nation.
“We are pleased that the federal government has committed to working closely with the province of Ontario and the First Nations, and we look forward to working with them and the community as we find solutions to mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River system,” he said.
An expert report released last May found that Grassy Narrows’ Wabigoon River is still highly contaminated more than four decades after controls on mercury releases were put in place, indicating that there is an ongoing, but unidentified, source of mercury. The scientists concluded that the river can and must be cleaned up safely.