“If mercury was buried in Toronto, and it was poisoning people, you can be sure that this government would act.”

Sol Mamakwa, the NDP’s Kiiwetinoong MPP and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Critic, had strong words for the provincial government at Queen’s Park yesterday. He was calling on the government to provide support for the Grassy Narrows community, and the clean-up of mercury in the English and Wabigoon River system.

“It’s been over three years since the Chief of Grassy Narrows First Nations called for an investigation into mercury poisoning of the soil and the river. The government’s own environmental experts recommended clean up action in the area over a year ago. How long will it take this government to dig and clean up this toxic dump before more people from Grassy Narrows are poisoned?”

Mamakwa cited a recent report indicating that the provincial government has not taken any action to find a series of buried barrels full of mercury that a retired mill worker in Dryden helped to identify the potential location of, over four years ago.

Mamakwa says that action needs to be taken immediately, despite the government saying that action to investigate that location would take place over a year ago. The work to dig trenches to investigate the location, as well as groundwater sampling, has been estimated by a third-party to cost roughly $100,000, and the work would take roughly four weeks to complete.

However, the provincial government’s Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks – Rod Phillips – says that he has been in touch with Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Rudy Turtle as recently as last month, saying that his government and ministry is committed to addressing the community’s concerns.

“Our government is committed to the health and safety of all of our communities. Mercury contamination in the river system has a profound impact, and has to be properly addressed. We will continue to address this issue with the communities involved. We’re working collaboratively,” he said, citing the work of a tripartite group consisting of federal and provincial representation, as well as representation from Grassy Narrows.

Phillips added that the government was waiting for the results of a recent study that was completed in December. The results of that study - the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek Community Health Assessment Report - previously revealed that Grassy Narrows adults report higher rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts compared to other First Nation adults, and has now found that community members under the age of 19 had higher rates of mercury-related problems compared to other First Nation communities.

Grassy Narrows youth were twice as likely to not thrive and to have emotional or behavioural issues, and three times as likely to have at least one condition that may impact school performance – such as speech or language difficulties and learning disabilities. Other conditions include attention deficit disorder, allergies, asthma, eczema, anxiety, depression, anemia, visual problems, and ear infections.

In their research, Japanese doctors have estimated that more than 90 per cent of the First Nation members at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseeomoong show 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.

In recent years, governments have committed millions to clean up the English and Wabigoon Rivers, build a Mercury Survivors Home and Treatment Center and index existing Mercury Disability Board payments to inflation. However, despite additional funding from the federal government, 94 per cent of community members do not receive compensation for mercury poisoning.

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. 

The English and Wabigoon River Systems Mercury Contamination Settlement Agreement Act of 1986 contained terms of a settlement negotiated by the Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations with the federal and provincial governments, and two paper companies, for claims due to mercury contamination in the English and Wabigoon river systems.

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 mercury is still leaching into the river system.

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. 

Health Canada stopped the regular monitoring of mercury levels in the Grassy Narrows community in 1999.

For more information:
Mercury poisoning severely impacting students, report
Mercury legacy ‘frightening,’ commissioner

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