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Ontario knew about Grassy Narrows mercury site for decades, but kept it secret

A confidential 2016 report says provincial officials were told in the 1990s that the site of a paper mill near Grassy Narrows First Nation was contaminated with mercury — and that the poison is likely still present.

By DAVID BRUSER News Reporter
JAYME POISSON Investigative Reporter

Grassy Narrows' fishing tourism industry was decimated in the 1970s by news of mercury dumping at a nearby paper mill. (TODD KOROL/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

Grassy Narrows' fishing tourism industry was decimated in the 1970s by news of mercury dumping at a nearby paper mill.

(TODD KOROL/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)

 

"Meanwhile, recent key findings by the Star, environmental group Earthroots and top scientists have shown high levels of mercury in soil, fish and river sediment — all strongly suggesting the site of the mill is still leaking mercury.

 

Earlier this year, the Star and Earthroots found soil on mill property that had mercury readings up to 80 times normal levels. Then top mercury scientists reported that sediment in the stretch of the Wabigoon River that flows past the plant had mercury levels up to 130 times normal levels. Both findings came after the Star revealed that walleye downstream are the most mercury-contaminated in the province."

 

Government officials knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under the paper mill upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, but the people there did not find out until this week, the Star has learned.

During the intervening years, as the residents of Grassy Narrows and scientists sounded the alarm that the neurotoxin was poisoning the fish and the people who eat it, government official after government official kept repeating that there was no ongoing source of mercury in the Wabigoon River that is the lifeblood of Grassy Narrows.

The residents were told that since the mill, then owned by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon between 1962 and 1970, the river would, over time, clean itself naturally.

A confidential report, commissioned by the current owner of the mill, Domtar, and prepared in 2016 by an environmental consulting firm, tells a different story: the province knew decades ago that the site of the mill was contaminated with mercury. Today, the report says, it likely still is.

Further, the report — which is based on a “collection of historical sampling” from the mill’s archives — also reveals that groundwater samples taken from wells on the mill property over the years have come back with extremely high mercury levels. The province’s Environment Ministry said it was unaware of this well data until it got the report in July 2016.

The report says there are two potential ongoing sources of mercury at the site of the old mill: under the old chlor-alkali plant where “additional mercury-contaminated soils are known to remain present beneath the building,” and a ditch beside the river where there has been no monitoring.

These potential sources, experts say, could be contaminating the river still.

Grassy Narrows grandmother and health advocate Judy Da Silva calls the development “sickening.”

“It shows how lowly we are, the Anishinabeg, to the government and corporations. Like we are not worth it to be alive,” said Da Silva. “They knew about this poison and they did nothing. They didn’t even tell us. It is awful.”

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister said: “For decades I have been seeking justice for my people for mercury poisoning, searching for answers, searching for help. Never once was I told that mercury poison is still under the mill, right next to our river. I was told over and over that the mill site was cleaned up and that the problem ended in the ’70s. I now see that was a deception and my people have paid the price with their health.”

Read the full article in The Star.