Residents suffering long-term effects from mercury poisoning are now eligible for Ontario Disability Support.
The provincial government has changed its regulations so that anyone who has previously received an award from the Mercury Disability Fund will now automatically qualify for provincial disability support, provided that they also financially qualify for ODSP.
“Prior to the change, anyone who received Mercury Disability Awards would then have to apply separately for benefits through ODSP. Now, they will automatically qualify for benefits, if they financially qualify for ODSP,” said Sally Hunt, a staff lawyer with the Northwest Community Legal Clinic.
“It was an up-to one-year application process that was eliminated by that change. It’s a great benefit for someone who has already gone through the process with the Mercury Disability Board. Of course, through that year-long process, they wouldn’t be receiving ODSP benefits to help them through that time. It will eliminate a lot of waiting time, and help to close that gap.”
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 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.
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.
The settlement led to the created of the Mercury Disability Fund, supervised by the Mercury Disability Board. The Grassy Narrows and Islington Band Mercury Disability Board says that since its inception in March earlier this year, the board has processed 1,121 applications for benefits.
For a person to be eligible to apply for benefits, that person must be a current member of Grassy Narrows First Nation or Wabaseemoong Indepenedent Nations, a past member of one of the two bands, or was a resident on one of the two first nation communities prior to October 1, 1985. You also do not need to currently live in either of the two communities, as long as you are a band member.
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.
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. Previous studies say that it could be another 50 year until it's safe to eat walleye from the Wabigoon-English River system.