Province confirms mercury at Dryden mill site

Contamination causing health, economic problems in downstream Indigenous communities

Ontario’s environment ministry has confirmed elevated levels of mercury in the soil at a mill site in Dryden, Ont., upstream from Indigenous communities where residents have suffered mercury poisoning for decades.

In a report dated December 2017, the province said soil testing was done at 24 spots at the site. Two of the locations, in the property’s northeast corner, showed elevated mercury levels in the soil, the report states.

The report was independently reviewed by CBC News.

The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change did not immediately return requests for comment.

“We heard of it, we suspected it,” Grassy Narrows chief Simon Fobister told CBC News. “It’s very troubling, very troubling.”

“Let’s clean it up. The province has to clean it up. That’s gotta be their number-one priority, and we’ll go from there.”

The site has long been believed to be the source of the mercury contamination affecting the communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong. 

Decades-old contamination

Reports indicate that Reed Paper buried mercury in the soil on the property, and dumped effluent into the Wabigoon River in the 1960s and 1970s.

The contamination spread to the First Nation communities, where more than 90 per cent of residents have shown signs of mercury poisoning.

Fobister said his community’s commercial fishing industry has also been affected.

“It’s been a social and economic disaster for our community,” he said. “It’s been very well-documented how our community has been devastated by this mercury.”

“The health of our people has also been devastated,” Fobister said. “We experience pain and suffering caused by mercury. We live with it every day.”

The Ontario government announced last year it will spend $85 million to clean up mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.

Premier let communities down, NDP says

In an emailed statement, NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne “continues to let Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations down” on the mercury issue.

“In 2016, her government shelved a report showing that they were still at risk from mercury poisoning and delayed efforts to build a treatment facility where it was needed,” Tabuns stated. “We could have dealt with this sooner, addressed the environmental risks and provided mercury poisoning victims with the care that they deserve but every step of the way, this Liberal government forced the people of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoongs First Nations to suffer in silence.”

The property and mill have been owned by Domtar since 2007.