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Evidence of poisonous mercury dump found upstream from Grassy Narrows

Earthroots volunteers find contaminated soil in area of reported mercury dump

Gord Miller, former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and Earthroots Chair, calls on the government for a comprehensive survey of the entire former mill site for mercury contamination.

 

Toronto – Earthroots has found evidence of a poisonous mercury dump behind the Dryden paper mill, upstream from the Grassy Narrows First Nation where many people suffer from mercury poisoning. A soil sample from the site collected by Earthroots volunteers contains hundreds of times the level of mercury found in a nearby uncontaminated site. The location is within the circle drawn on a map by Kas Glowacki, a former mill worker, to show where he buried 50 barrels of mercury and salt haphazardly in a pit behind the mill in 1972.  Mercury is a potent neuro-toxin that damages the brain and nervous system.

"The presence of a mercury hot spot confirms the need for a comprehensive survey of the entire former mill site for mercury contamination sites. Any such mercury deposits represent an ongoing threat to human health and the ecosystem," said Gord Miller, Board Chair of Earthroots, an environmental group, and former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

This key evidence comes to light shortly after the Wynne government told the legislature on November 23rd that “We have completed very extensive tests... and found there are no barrels buried and there is no source [of mercury].”  Grassroots volunteers for Earthroots, an environmental group, found the contaminated soil in a weekend excursion using a hand held metal detector. 

"The government has dismissed this eye-witness report of an improper toxic dump, but we know a proper site investigation has not been done if a small group of untrained volunteers finds contaminated soil on a weekend survey," said Gord Miller.  "It's time to end this shameful saga and finally do the right thing by cleaning up the English-Wabigoon River and its watershed once and for all."

Three generations of Grassy Narrows families bear the terrible burden of mercury poisoning on their bodies and brains.  Fishing is a central part of Grassy Narrows’ culture which has provided sustenance and livelihood for countless generations of Grassy Narrows people. The collapse of fishing as a result of mercury poisoning created massive unemployment and poverty in the community which persists to this day. Social services are underfunded and youth suicides are on the rise in this formerly self-sufficient and healthy Indigenous nation.

Grassy Narrows first learned about the barrels in August of 2015 in a letter from Kas Glowacki, a former mill worker who reports that he was part of a crew that filled, dumped, and buried fifty toxic barrels behind the mill in 1972. Glowacki wrote “[t]he drums were dropped not placed into the pit… I can attest to the fact that there was several Hundred (sic) pounds [of liquid mercury] buried up on the hill above the river.” According to Glowacki’s estimates the barrels contained 60 liters of mercury - enough to elevate mercury levels in the Wabigoon River by 10 fold for 80 years.

Former Grassy Narrows Chief Roger Fobister Sr. forwarded Glowacki’s letter to the government.  On November 12, 2015, MOECC officials responded to the chief saying that "The Dryden pulp mill is not a source of mercury."  

In June of this year, after a Toronto Star investigation exposed the government’s failure to act on Glowacki’s tip, a spokesperson for the MOECC told the Star that the ministry is doing “everything in its power” to find the site.

The government searched for the barrels this summer using geophysical sensors but concluded there was no evidence of the barrels. But they searched in the wrong place.  Despite tips from Earthroots the MOECC search area did not correspond to the probable location of the mercury dump drawn on a 1968 aerial photograph for Earthroots by Kas Glowacki the eye-witness. The ministry did not ask Glowacki to locate the probable site on their maps.

A team of untrained Earthroots volunteers on foot spent a weekend searching for the toxic dump using a rented metal detector. They took a soil sample from a site where a metal signal lined up with a circle drawn by Glowacki on an archival aerial photo, approximately one kilometer behind the mill.  Lab analysis later found that the soil had mercury levels hundreds of times higher than a nearby, uncontaminated site. 

An expert report released last May found that Grassy Narrows’ Wabigoon River is still highly contaminated more than four decades after controls on mercury releases were put in place, indicating that there is an ongoing, but unidentified, source of mercury.  The scientists concluded that the river can and must be cleaned up safely.

On November 23rd Minister Murray told the legislature “I will promise that we will… get the cleanup to the satisfaction of the chief and the health of the people of Grassy Narrows.” 

Grassy Narrows’ Chief Simon Fobister responded to the commitment saying “I invite the Premier to put this historic commitment in writing and sign it alongside me in proper ceremony so that we can know it is real.  We have borne 54 years of poison and inaction – we need a firm timeline and a realistic budget to get this cleanup done as soon as humanly possible.  We will not rest until our fish are safe to eat again.”

However, the following day Premier Wynne back tracked and refused to commit to cleaning the English-Wabigoon River claiming that it would risk releasing old mercury.  The Toronto Star reported that, when asked, her government provided no evidence of risk associated with the clean-up methods recommended by the expert report.  Dr. David Schindler, founder of the Experimental Lakes Area, wrote to Premier Wynne saying that “this fear is needless” and urged the Premier to proceed with the reclamation of the river.

Contact:  647-550-7882

High resolution photos and B-roll available.

#FreeGrassy

Earthroots is a grassroots environmental organization that works with communities to protect watersheds, wildlife and wilderness in Ontario.

 

BACKGROUND

A paper mill in Dryden dumped 9,000 kg of mercury into the Wabigoon River upstream from Grassy Narrows and two other First nations in the 1960s.  Mercury is a potent brain poison that concentrates as it moves up the food chain, reaching dangerous levels in predatory fish like walleye and pike that are dietary and economic staples for these Indigenous communities.

A recent report by Japanese mercury experts found extremely high rates of mercury poisoning symptoms among people tested in Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in 2014, including younger people.  Another expert report by Canadian mercury expert Dr. Mergler found that between 1978 and 1992 many babies were born in Grassy Narrows with umbilical cord blood mercury levels high enough to cause permanent brain development impacts.

Nothing has ever been done to clean up the mercury poison that was dumped in the English-Wabigoon River.  Currently, walleye from Clay Lake on the Wabigoon River are the most contaminated fish in Ontario according to MOECC data.  One meal of Clay Lake walleye contains up to 150 times the safe daily dose of mercury recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency.