Michael Perley's not holding his breath. When it comes to cleaning up mercury from the Wabigoon River system, he says he's heard it all before.

"The same kinds of statements are being made. The same kinds of vague promises about action, and yet nothing has been done in 40 years. It's astonishing," Perley said in a recent interview.

Perley helped write a book about the issue -- No Safe Place by Warner Troyer -- back in 1977. The experience included a visit to the mill site in Dryden, where the mercury was dumped.

"They also were able to show me where the pits were. I don't exactly recall precisely where they were in relation to the mill, but they were very close to it," he said.

Perley added he remembered talking with a mill worker in Dryden, who was also impacted by mercury poisoning.

"The amount he ingested as a result led him to, again, lose a kidney and have other neurological problems," Perley noted.

Forty years later, Perley says his conversation with the mill worker stays with him.

"I remember talking to him. He was really quite a remarkable individual. He wasn't bitter. He just described the whole situation in pretty matter-of-fact terms, but it was all the more striking for the fact he didn't get very upset about it, at least when he was talking to me. He just told the story," Perley recalled.

In 1979 and again in 1985, the government of Ontario agreed to take on future environmental costs. In exchange, Great Lakes Forest Products agreed to spend $200 million on upgrades to the mill. The province has been challenging the agreement through the courts. 

Nevertheless, Queen's Park says it remains committed to a clean up of the site and the river system.

"Mercury contamination has had a profound impact on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and has to be properly addressed," it says in an email from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. "Ontario is continuing to work with First Nations to identify mercury contaminated sites in the English and Wabigoon Rivers and to develop and implement an action plan to remediate these sites."

The update comes as crews prepare for the summer research season.

"The ministry, Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nation are in the process of undertaking additional field work on the English and Wabigoon Rivers. This work will continue into the spring/summer 2018 field season. We are working collaboratively and using a science-based approach in order to identify and evaluate options for remediation. We have been sharing updates with local First Nations throughout this process," the message continued.

Last year, the government came under fire, as documents showed the province knew more than it let on about the situation. This led to more pressure for an expedited process.

"In addition to the work on the rivers, an assessment of the Dryden mill site is currently underway to determine if the site is an ongoing source of mercury to the river. All data and reports from the mill site assessment have been transparently shared with First Nations through the mill site assessment working group that consists of members from local First Nations, the ministry and Domtar. The ministry will continue to engage with local First Nations through the working group on next steps as we work to ensure that any required action is taken at the site as soon as possible," added Lindsay Davidson, in the email.

"In December 2017, Ontario passed the English and Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Funding Act, 2017 which secures $85 million in dedicated funding for the remediation of mercury in the English and Wabigoon Rivers," it said in the prepared statement.

"This funding has been placed in an independent trust, separate from government, and will be used to cover costs associated with remediation of the rivers and related activities. The English and Wabigoon Rivers Remediation Panel, comprised of members who represent Grassy Narrows First Nation, Wabaseemoong Independent Nations and the province, is responsible for directing the expenditure of the funding from the trust," the note continued.

For more information:

Province knew about mercury, report

Court of appeal to hear arguments in mercury case

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