Top environment ministry officials had serious concerns that a plan to clear-cut log a swath of the boreal forest near Grassy Narrows, Ont., would release mercury into the already contaminated area, according to internal government emails in recent years.

“Yes, logging introduces Hg (mercury)!” one scientist wrote to a colleague. In another email, the former director of the branch that oversees scientists charged with monitoring Ontario’s environment observed that “no one is tracking the downstream implications” of the logging plan.

Despite these worries, the ministry in 2014 rejected a request by Grassy Narrows First Nation for an environmental assessment of the potential impact of the 10-year logging plan. That plan is on hold pending a court challenge by Grassy Narrows. As part of the challenge, email exchanges between ministry officials obtained by Grassy Narrows through a freedom of information request have been entered by the community as evidence in court.

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister Sr. is baffled and upset with the situation.

“It’s disturbing that internally they would acknowledge (that clear-cut logging releases mercury) amongst each other, but when we request an environmental assessment that they would refuse it,” said Fobister, an applicant in the court challenge.
The public release of the emails also come around the same time as a new scientific report stating that adding any more mercury to the already “mercury-laden” area near Grassy Narrows First Nation would be “irresponsible” and “shameless.”

Grassy Narrows, a community of roughly 1,500, has already had a long and painful legacy with mercury. Between 1962 and 1970 a Dryden, Ont., paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of the potent neurotoxin in the English-Wabigoon River. The site of the plant, now under different ownership, is 100 km upstream. The people got sick with symptoms like tremors, loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision, and still suffer today.

Clear-cut logging has been linked to creating higher mercury levels in fish. Here’s how it happens: Mercury gets released into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants and incinerators and later rains down in forests where it gets trapped in the soil. But when a forested area is clear-cut (a large number of trees in one area are uniformly cut down), mercury can run off into lakes and rivers, where its potency gets magnified in aquatic life and travels up the food chain.
A 2005 Canadian research study looking at nearly 40 lakes in Quebec found all the walleye and pike in lakes near a clear-cut boreal forest had mercury levels above the World Health Organization limit for safe human consumption, compared to only 18 per cent in lakes where nearby forests have not been logged. This study is “likely the most comprehensive study on the association between watershed disturbance and fish mercury levels,” according to a ministry of natural resources response filed as part of the ongoing court case.

The author of that study, Université de Montréal professor Dr. Richard Carignan, writes in a recent report prepared for Grassy Narrows First Nation and filed as part of the court challenge that there is a “clear risk of increased mercury contamination following clear-cut logging” in the forest around Grassy Narrows, which is called the Whiskey Jack forest. He has called for a site-specific study.

These issues were the subject of a series of emails among provincial ministry officials over the last few years. The Star attempted to contact all email authors. None responded.

“Yes, logging introduces Hg (the chemical symbol for mercury)!” writes government research scientist Dr. Satyendra Bhavsar in a June 2012 email exchange with colleagues that discusses mercury levels in fish near Grassy Narrows. The scientist added: “Do we have funding to conduct this study (I would love to explore) as this question itself is a research project on its own??!!!”

More than one year after the scientist asked to study the issue further, Rachael Fletcher, manager of bio-monitoring at the environment ministry, remarked in an August 2013 email exchange that getting Bhavasar’s research project off the ground has “been a slow process though and we haven’t quite managed to get it up and running yet.”

Environment ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler declined to answer any questions about the internal emails, citing the ongoing legal case.

Kate Jordan, a spokesperson for the natural resources and forestry ministry, which created the logging plan for the Whiskey Jack forest, told the Star that the plan follows best practices set out in Ontario’s forest management “Stand and Site” guide to ensure any disturbance of the site is minimized.

The guide, approved in 2010, has been criticized by scientists for being insufficient.

Jordan also pointed to a master’s thesis that came to a different conclusion and did not find a link between clear-cut logging and mercury levels in fish.

In a 2014 response to Grassy Narrows First Nation’s request for an environmental assessment, the natural resources ministry acknowledged “(the) potential for forest management activities to result in mobilization of terrestrial mercury into aquatic systems is well-documented and a serious concern.”

Ian Smith, the director in charge of overseeing environmental monitoring, noted in a 2013 email exchange that logging increases mercury mobilization and “nobody is tracking the downstream implications.” He again brought up government monitoring in another email chain in December 2014 — just days after Grassy Narrows’ request for an environmental assessment was rejected.

His email came as a response to a ministry-wide “daily issues alert” that shared a Toronto Star story about the rejection. The story included a comment from an environment ministry spokesperson that said constant monitoring by the province would ensure any mercury migration is limited.

“Note the ‘monitoring’ is of soils and not the aquatic ecosystem. Just curious — were we approached by EAAB (Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch) for any input to the decision re: impacts on mercury in fish?” Smith wrote.

The response to Smith’s question, if there was one, was not included in the emails filed in court.

As part of an ongoing investigation into mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, the Star has reported on a recent government-funded scientific report commissioned by Grassy Narrows that cautions mercury levels in sediments and fish downstream are still dangerously high. These persistently high levels of mercury suggest the metal is still leaking into the river system, the report found, adding that it’s impossible to know where the ongoing leak is coming from because the province has not monitored the river around Dryden since 1980.

In another recent scientific report, also prepared for Grassy Narrows as part of the court case, Donna Mergler concludes that mercury poisoning occurs at low levels previously thought harmless.

“Any increase of exposure to this already ‘sensitive’ community to mercury contamination from sources, such as mining, logging and reservoirs, would further compound the harm to the health and well-being of the present and future generations,” said Mergler, an environmental scientist at Université du Québec à Montréal.

She adds: “It would only add toxic insult to toxic injury to further expose this population to mercury.”