First Nations chief says Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised action “as soon as humanly possible.”
The Wabigoon River near Grassy Narrows has been contaminated with mercury for decades. (TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)
The Ontario government says it is “completely committed” to finding sites that are contaminated with mercury near Grassy Narrows and putting in place a plan to clean up the toxin.
“Mercury contamination has had a profound impact on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations, and has to be properly addressed,” Environment Minister Glen Murray and Indigenous Relations Minister David Zimmer said in a statement released Monday.
“We are completely committed to working with all partners to identify all potentially contaminated sites, and to creating and implementing a comprehensive remediation action plan for the English Wabigoon River.”
The statement comes after Premier Kathleen Wynne met last week with Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister Sr. and environmentalist David Suzuki, who has been calling for a cleanup of the river.
“Premier Wynne promised me that Grassy Narrows would lead the cleanup and that it would begin as soon as humanly possible,” said Fobister in a statement released immediately after the province’s Monday commitment.
“I welcome this historic commitment and I am eager to work to make this promise a reality so that my people can enjoy our culture and our homeland in health again without fear of an invisible poison. When our fish are safe to eat we will know that this promise has been kept.”
The joint statement from Murray and Zimmer said that, in light of new information of potential mercury contamination at the site of the old paper mill upstream in Dryden, the province is now conducting a “full and rigorous mercury contamination assessment on the entire mill site.”
Last month, the Star published a story detailing how two reporters and volunteers from environmental group Earthroots 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.
The original contamination began when a Dryden paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, into the English-Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970. The site of the plant, now under different ownership, is about 100 kilometres upstream from Grassy Narrows.
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, which scientists have speculated is the site of the old mill where the Star recently found mercury-contaminated soil.
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.
Monday’s statement from the province also said officials have been engaging the federal government, who last month, in a statement to the Star, vowed to take action to deal with the Grassy Narrows mercury contamination “once and for all.” The province says it will work with the federal government to reform the Mercury Disability Board, which gives compensation to people affected by mercury poisoning symptoms.
“We … look forward to their contributions and assistance,” said the statement from Murray and Zimmer.