The federal government has promised action that will deal with Grassy Narrows mercury contamination “once and for all.”

Working closely with the province and First Nations leaders, federal officials will address mercury contamination that has plagued the northern community for decades, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Star late Monday. The vow of action followed requests for help from Chief Simon Fobister Sr., a New Democrat MP, and the recent publication by the Star of new test results showing contaminated land.

“In light of Star reporters and volunteers from Earthroots finding mercury-contaminated soil behind the mill, we reached out to the Province of Ontario to see how we can work more closely together to address these findings,” said PMO press secretary Cameron Ahmad.

Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, along with provincial officials, will be attending a meeting with the Chief of Grassy Narrows and nearby White Dog First Nations to discuss “next steps in the process to effectively act on the mercury contamination,” the statement said. No date for the meeting was given.

Last Friday, the Star published a story detailing how two reporters from the paper and volunteers from Earthroots had dug holes in a clearing behind the old paper mill in Dryden and found significantly higher-than-normal levels of mercury — nearly 80 times the level expected to be found in soil from that region of the province.
That set off a chain of events, with a letter from Fobister requesting access to the site to conduct their own tests, and a stiffly worded letter from New Democrat MP Charlie Angus asking Trudeau to commit to a full cleanup.

In the PMO’s statement, the spokesperson said the issue of Grassy Narrows is a priority for Bennett and Health Minister Jane Philpott, “who will continue working closely with the Province of Ontario and the First Nations to get to the bottom of the science, and the next steps necessary to deal with this issue once and for all,” said spokesperson Ahmad.

“We are all aware of the issue, and are doing our part to help remedy it.”
Experts from Environment and Climate Change Canada are currently providing advice to Ontario for how contaminated sediment in the river can be cleaned up, the prime minister’s spokesperson said. A recent Star story revealed how the walleye from the river — a staple for the northern community — are the most mercury-contaminated in the province.

Fobister, frustrated with inaction, had reacted to the Star’s recent testing story and written to both Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray and Domtar, the company that now owns the land. He wanted permission to enter the site, which is upstream from his community, to conduct tests to determine if there is a source of ongoing mercury pollution.

“This site and surrounding areas need to be tested immediately so that we can . . . assess the extent of the contamination,” Fobister wrote in the letter. “It is critical that our First Nation lead those studies so that we may trust in the results.”

Meanwhile, Angus (Timmins-James Bay) wrote to Trudeau asking the prime minister to meet with Grassy Narrows leaders and commit to cleaning up the mercury.

Until now, much of the pressure to do something about the mercury problem in Grassy Narrows has been directed at the provincial government. The site of the old mill, Grassy Narrows, and the affected part of the English-Wabigoon River system are all in northwestern Ontario. The federal government, however, has a responsibility for the health and well-being of indigenous people in Canada, advocates say.

“The community of Grassy Narrows has written to you three times over the past year to no response,” Angus says in his letter. “Your government’s disinterest (in) this social environmental catastrophe is truly shocking.” In March, May and September of last year, Grassy Narrows leaders invited Trudeau to come to their community and announce a cleanup.

A Domtar spokesperson did not answer questions from the Star but said the company had responded to the chief directly. The Star obtained a copy of that letter, which says that if the province decides additional site testing is necessary, “a representative” from Grassy Narrows will be invited to “accompany and observe” the environment ministry’s work.

The soil samples taken by the Star and Earthroots came from an area circled on a map by retired mill worker Kas Glowacki, who said that in 1972 he was part of a group of workers who “haphazardly” dumped drums filled with salt and mercury into a pit behind the mill.

Late last year, the province’s environment minister said they had looked for the barrels and concluded they did not exist. On Monday, a ministry spokesperson said officials had already been in touch with Glowacki and Fobister “to discuss the new information and most appropriate actions going forward.”

“We take this latest information seriously and will work with the community to conduct additional testing, which may include further geophysical studies and soil sampling, in the newly identified area,” said spokesperson Gary Wheeler. “This will include co-ordinating again with Grassy Narrows First Nation and Domtar for joint access to the property to undertake appropriate sampling and study work.”

The contaminated soil does not prove the existence of the alleged dump site but is enough to warrant further attention from professionals, experts say. A fuller investigation, they say, would help determine whether this mercury was spilled on the ground, if it is flowing sideways through groundwater, or if it is moving up from a source below. It is also not known if this mercury is contaminating the river system.

Mercury has not been used in paper production at the site in decades, and there is no suggestion that current mill operator, Domtar, several owners removed from Reed Paper, is responsible for any possible ongoing source of mercury.

What is known is that between 1962 and 1970 the former paper mill — then owned by Reed Paper — dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River, contaminating the fish and sickening generations who rely on walleye as a dietary staple.

Despite a call from the provincial environment minister in 1984 to clean up the river, the government of the day decided to let it clean itself up naturally.

More than four decades on, dangerous and persistently high levels of mercury in the sediment and fish in the river system suggest there is an ongoing source. The river and lake near Grassy Narrows are home to the most mercury-contaminated fish in the province.

Physical symptoms of mercury poisoning include loss of muscle co-ordination and tunnel vision. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cognitive damage, according to recent research. A recent study done by Japanese experts concluded that 90 per cent of people tested in Grassy Narrows and nearby White Dog have a symptom of mercury poisoning.