The Ontario government has ignored startling information about a potentially dangerous mercury dumping site for seven months, a Star investigation has found.
Saying he was writing out of “guilt,” a retired labourer says that more than 40 years ago he was part of a small crew that “haphazardly” dumped drums of mercury and salt into a pit nearGrassy Narrows First Nation where water and fish have long been contaminated by the toxic metal. Residents have for years complained of serious illnesses consistent with mercury poisoning.
An email written by Kas Glowacki went to the Grassy Narrows chief last August, who sent it to the environment ministry.
“I was amazed at the amount of mercury that was pooling around my shovel as I dumped it into the drums,” wrote Glowacki, who said he worked at the Dryden Paper mill in 1972.
Glowacki, now living in Alberta, was essentially told by the environment ministry there was nothing to be concerned about.
The ministry, however, recently jumped into high gear after the Star began asking questions. A spokesman said the ministry is doing “everything in its power” to find the site, but also added there was “no evidence at this time” to suggest that it exists.
“We filled I would say approximately 50+ drums of the salt and mercury mixture,” Glowacki’s email report read. “There was a large pit dug behind the mill that was lined with black poly(urethane). The drums were dropped, not placed into the pit … and buried.
“I am writing this letter out of guilt and to possibly share some info that you might not be aware of. I think that after so many years the monitoring may have gone by the wayside.”
The mercury poisoning of the residents of Grassy Narrows and the fish they eat has been well documented after the old Dryden mill — now closed — dumped 10 tonnes of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, into the Wabigoon-English River system between 1962 and 1970.
A government-funded report commissioned by Grassy Narrows and released just three weeks ago is cautioning that despite the passage of time mercury levels in sediments and fish downstream are still dangerously high (one meal of Walleye from a lake on the river system contains up to 150 times the safe dose of mercury recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).
These persistently high levels of mercury suggest the metal is still leaking into the river system. The source of the mercury leak could be mercury dumped in the river in the 1960s that has been dormant in the river sediments but only now is being churned up. Mercury could also be seeping into the river from a site around the old Dryden paper mill. It’s impossible to know if there is a leak coming from the site because the government had not done any recent monitoring of the river near Dryden, the report said.
The government acknowledged to the Star that it has not tested there since 1980.
“We’re quite sure there is an ongoing source but we have to discover what that source is and figure out how to turn it off,” said John Rudd, lead author of the report. “If that source can be turned off it’s possible to clean the lakes up.”
Freshwater scientist Rudd was also part of a team that reported in 1984 that the fish in the river would be contaminated for generations if it wasn’t cleaned up. The government opted to allow the river to recover naturally.
After receiving Glowacki’s email, a ministry inspector responded by email in November, saying in a short note that there is an official “mercury disposal site” near the old mill that was established in 1971 and that it is not a source of contamination. Later, the ministry told the community that this site, which was filled with waste until 1981, contains mercury-contaminated building rubble and “sludge,” and it is encased in concrete, is being monitored and that the site is not a source of contamination. Glowacki maintains that the site he is referencing is in a different area.
Though the site described by Glowacki differed in almost every way from the government’s so-called Waste Disposal site, no one from the ministry seemed to think Glowacki’s email suggested the existence of a second site. No one at the ministry followed up with Glowacki to ask him more questions.
Grassy Narrows leaders are frustrated with a lack of action.
“(The government) should investigate all leads because this is very, very troublesome news,” said Simon Fobister Sr., chief of Grassy Narrows. “We’d like to find out if it does exist and see if mercury is leaking into the soil and . . . the river.”
After learning of Glowacki’s email, the Star interviewed him at his home in Medicine Hat. He indicated on a map where he thought the dump was located. The Star showed this map to the ministry on June 3. Three days later, an inspector visited the area.
Meanwhile, the ministry’s story about the alleged dump site has repeatedly changed over the last two weeks.
First, spokesman Gary Wheeler said, “we take all public concerns and notices extremely seriously.”
The ministry did not know of any such site in that vicinity, the Star was told, which is why they sent the inspector to gather more information. Nevertheless, “all recoverable liquid mercury” was sold when the Dryden mill was shut down, the ministry added.
Later, the ministry said they are aware of barrels that had been filled with “liquid mercury mixed with cement and sand” around 1972. The mixture in these barrels was allowed to harden at the old mill before being transported to the official Waste Disposal site and placed in “cement and/or poly lined compartments.”
Glowacki maintains the barrels he is talking about were filled with salt and liquid mercury, not sand or cement, and that he saw them being buried in the hillside pit lined with polyurethane sheets.
Now 65 and retired, Glowacki has fibromyalgia and uses a cane to get around his house. Concerned that his various past jobs as a labourer and electrician might have contributed to his illness, he was recently searching the Internet for information about chemicals he’s worked with, including mercury. He saw articles about Grassy Narrows and its ongoing battle against the contamination.
“It was … so horrendous that it was still ongoing after all these years,” Glowacki said of the impacts of mercury he read about. Then he wrote his email.
Glowacki recounted for the Star how, as a 21-year-old casual labourer, he spent a week on a six-man crew that shovelled out the vat and filled the drums. He was wearing rain boots and waterproof pants. It was springtime. He remembered the stench of the salt, which had been used in a chemical process at the pulp mill.
At the top of the vat, sporadic veins of mercury streaked the salt, Glowacki said, adding that as he and a co-worker shovelled toward the bottom, the mercury concentrations seemed to increase.
Glowacki remembered that some of the drums were carelessly pushed off a flatbed truck and toppled into the pit which was lined with polyurethane sheets, not concrete. Glowacki said he remembers the squishy, thudding sound the metal drums made when they hit the thinly covered wet earth. “The way they did it was so haphazardly,” Glowacki said of how the mercury was buried.
He estimated he saw at least 60 litres of liquid mercury. In the United States, any more than two tablespoons of spilled mercury is enough to trigger a mandatory call to the coast guard’s National Response Center, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
Seven months after receiving Glowacki’s email, the ministry recently took a sample from two collection ponds near the alleged second dump site. Results should be in soon.
Scientists who have studied the Grassy Narrows mercury contamination said testing the river water upstream and downstream from the old mill site would help determine whether mercury still leaks from that area. Government officials told the Star they have been monitoring surface and groundwater throughout the area, but scientists the Star spoke with said it’s not possible to tell if that monitoring is sufficient, based on the information provided.
The area Glowacki circled on a map appears to be on land that is now a wood waste disposal site for the current property occupant, Domtar, a pulp, paper and diaper manufacturer.
A Domtar spokesman confirmed that the ministry recently visited the site Glowacki identified.
Since the old Dryden mill dumped mercury into the river, the water, fish and locals have been the subject of international attention. In 2005, Japanese scientist Dr. Masazumi Haradapublished results from his study that found 79 per cent of 187 people from Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong Independent Nations had or may have had Minamata disease, a condition arising from methyl-mercury exposure. Tremors, tunnel vision, impaired hearing and speech, and impaired finger movement are symptoms commonly found among Minamata patients, the study said.
A mercury disability board was set up in the 1980s after Grassy Narrows participated in an out-of-court settlement with Ottawa, Ontario and two paper companies for all claims due to mercury contamination. Since its formation, the board has approved claims from more than 300 applicants, with payouts totalling $20 million.
As recently as 2014, the provincial government said “symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning are still evident” in Grassy Narrows.
The recently released report touched off debate at Queen’s Park over several days last week, with the NDP criticizing the Liberal government for inaction and demanding officials clean the river.
Spokesman Wheeler initially told news outlets there is “No evidence to suggest that mercury levels in the river system are such that any remediation, beyond continuing natural recovery, is warranted or advisable.”
Then the government appeared to soften its position in the following days. During a question period in early June, Environment Minister Glen Murray said the government is taking the report seriously, that the science supporting it is sound. It was then announced that Murray and aboriginal affairs minster David Zimmer will be visiting Grassy Narrows June 27.
Then the ministry told the Star that it has submitted to Grassy Narrows leaders a proposed, detailed plan for further testing in the area — part of an effort, the province said, to determine if and where mercury continues to contaminate.