The legacy of mercury contamination is getting worse, not better.

In her latest report, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Diane Saxe, focused on the 'devastating effects' of mercury poisoning on members of

Japanese researchers have been visiting Grassy Narrows and Whitedog to learn more about Minimata disease. (File photo)Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nation. After more than 60 years, she says the problem is getting worse, not better. 

“The Ontario government has long turned a blind eye to pollution that adversely affects many Indigenous communities. The conditions faced by these Indigenous communities would not be tolerated elsewhere in Ontario, yet have long been deemed unworthy of priority, effort or expense. After decades of neglect, the province is finally taking some steps, but the pollution that these communities still face is outrageous. The poisoning of people in that area has gotten worse, not better. It’s frightening. This work is 60 years overdue,” she said.

According to the 1986 settlement agreement, the mercury pollution is the result of discharge from the Reed Paper company's operation in Dryden, which used mercury in their bleaching process for making paper. The agreement dealt with the pollution between 1963 and 1970. The mill stopped using mercury in 1975, but earlier this year Professor Brian Branfireun, the Canada Research Chair in Environment and Geography at the University of Western Ontario, said the poisonous metal was still leaching into the English and Wabigoon River System.

Average concentrations of mercury in surface sediments upstream and downstream of the former pulp and paper plant in Dryden.

Altogether, an estimated 9 to 11 tonnes of mercury were released into the water. Mercury also reached the river system when, starting in the 1950's, the Ontario and federal governments built multiple hydroelectric dams on the Wabigoon-English River system. The dam reservoirs released mercury from soil into the watercourse.

While researchers at the Experimental Lakes Area have expressed concerns about disturbing the mercury deposits in the water system -- saying a clean up might mobilize the metal and redistribute it in the ecosystem -- the province has been working with the First Nations of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, to see if an effective and timely clean up is possible. 

Professor Brian Branfireun is the Canada Research Chair in Environment and Geography at the University of Western Ontario. (Submitted)Earlier this summer, Ontario pledged $85 million towards the clean up of the river system. Preparation work on the river system's remediation was completed this summer, with hopes that remediation can start in early 2018. An additional $2.7 million is budgeted by Queen's Park to accelerate work already underway on the river.

In the Good Choices, Bad Choices: Environmental Rights and Environment Protection in Ontario report, Saxe says inorganic mercury, when mixed with water, can be metabolized by bacteria into the more toxic methyl-mercury. Methyl-mercury can then be eaten by animals at the bottom of the food chain. Since the mercury doesn't dissolve, it accumulates in the body over a person's lifetime. This has a particular impact on First Nation members, who have depended on fish and wild game in the ecosystem for sustenance.

The commissioner adds methyl-mercury can negatively affect reproduction rates, and behaviour and physical development in fish and fish-eating birds and mammals, including humans. In her report, the commissioner says over 58 per cent of the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong community members have been diagnosed with -- or are suspected of having -- Minamata disease,  a serious neurological syndrome caused by mercury poisoning. Minamata disease causes degraded neurological abilities including: tunnel vision, deafness, numbness in arms and legs, uncontrollable shaking, difficulty walking and death.

In their research, Japanese doctors have estimated the impact on First Nations can be higher, with Japanese study results showing more than 90 per cent of the First Nation members at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseeomoong showing signs of mercury poisoning.

In the waters around Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, scientists have also noted that mercury contamination may be to blame for declines in otter and mink populations. Correlations have also been observed in the area between high mercury levels and abnormalities in domestic cats and turkey vultures.

As a result of elevated mercury levels, the province's guide to eating sport fish says several species of fish still remain unsafe for regular consumption, including some walleye. In the commissioner's report, she cites a study, which calculated it could be another 50 year until it's safe to eat walleye from the Wabigoon-English River system.

Mercury concentrations from 1960s to 2010, in surface sediments of the east basin of Clay Lake and in 45 cm walleye

For more information:
Good Choices, Bad Choices: Environmental Rights and Environment Protection in Ontario
Province announces $85M for mercury clean up
Suzuki visits Grassy Narrows
Update on mercury clean up
Mercury delay pointless, Campbell
Decision on mercury clean up pending
Report shows mercury still leaking into river system
Grassy Narrows and Islington Indian Bands Mercury Pollution Claims Settlement Act (1986)
The Grassy Narrows & Islington Band Mercury Disability Board: A Historical Report 1986-2001 (A Condensed Version)