The province says it is continuing to work with the Grassy Narrows First Nation to address the community’s concerns about mercury contamination in the English/Wabigoon River system.
On Friday, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray met to discuss the band’s concerns with Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister and environmentalist David Suzuki.
Following the meeting, Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer and Murray released the following joint statement:
“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. On behalf of the Province of Ontario, 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.
“We are addressing mercury contamination in the river by collaborating with the First Nations and other partners on solutions based on the best available science and research. We have also been actively engaging the federal government and look forward to their contributions and assistance,” the statement said.
Mercury is a potent neuro-toxin that damages the brain and nervous system leading to loss of vision, touch, balance, and co-ordination as well as learning disabilities with lifelong impacts.
An estimated 9,000 kilograms of mercury was released into the river system at the then Reed paper mill in Dryden during the 1960s, contaminating fish that are the main food source on the First Nations.
Testing in the years since has found continued mercury presence while symptoms of mercury poisoning persist in the communities.
The two ministers said that “right now, we are in the middle of a two-year process designed by Dr. John Rudd, who leads the expert team that is advising Grassy Narrows and is funded by the province. This work will inform the extent of the mercury contamination in the river and determine which remediation options may be the most appropriate for each site, including enhanced natural recovery and capping.
“We are committed to ensuring the First Nations’ rights and interests are at the forefront of decision making around options and implementation,” the statement said.
“As this is the home of the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation, the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and other communities, their input into which remediation options for the contaminated sites are selected and implemented is necessary, as there may be benefits and risks associated with each of these site specific interventions.”
New information regarding potential mercury contamination at the now Domtar Industrial Site in Dryden has come forward.
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.
Chief Fobister said earlier that he was “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.”
Ontario sent a team to the area but found nothing, leading to speculation that the co-ordinates provided were not accurate.
“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,” Fobister said. “We live downstream from that area and we rely on the fish from the river,” Fobister said.
Zimmer and Murray noted that the province is “now conducting a full and rigorous mercury contamination assessment on the entire mill site, working closely with First Nations and Domtar. The results of this assessment will be shared with the communities.
“We need to be sure unequivocally if the site is an ongoing source of mercury, and if it is, then we need to work with partners to take all measures to stop further mercury from entering the river,” the ministers said.
“We understand the federal government is also committed to working with the province and Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations on the remediation work and we look forward to working with them as a key partner,” the statement said.
“We will continue to work with the First Nations through regular meetings, and we are committed to providing updates on this work to the public. We know there continues to be significant work ahead for all and we are completely committed to working together with the First Nations and the federal government to ensure sufficient actions are taken,” the statement concluded.