A concerned Premier Kathleen Wynne is sending government scientists to Grassy Narrows to investigate a report of a potentially dangerous mercury dumping site on land near the First Nation community.

Her comments Tuesday came after a Star investigation found the province had ignored startling information from retired labourer Kas Glowacki, who reported that 40 years ago he was part of a small crew that “haphazardly” dumped drums of mercury and salt into a pit near a pulp and paper plant about 100 kilometres upstream in Dryden, Ont.

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. The government opted to allow the river to recover from the dump naturally, even though an expert report at the time advised that the fish in the river would be contaminated for generations if the mercury wasn’t cleaned up.

Glowacki’s emailed report, which reached the government in November, was largely ignored. He was essentially told by the environment ministry there was nothing to be concerned about.

The ministry recently jumped into high gear after the Star began asking questions. An inspector was sent to the area Glowacki identified to take water samples. Results are pending. After the Star’s story published Monday, Wynne said she was “very, very concerned” about the issue and vowed to “get to the bottom of it.”
“I’ve asked our ministers — both the minister of environment and climate change and the minister of indigenous relations and reconciliation — to go to Grassy Narrows on the 27th, but they’re taking scientists with them in order to try to figure out exactly what is happening here,” she said.

The Star interviewed Glowacki at his home in Medicine Hat, Alta. He said that in 1972, at the age of 21, he was tasked with emptying a large vat filled with a salt and mercury mixture. He said he helped fill approximately 50 metal drums, each 45 gallons in size.

“I was amazed at the amount of mercury that was pooling around my shovel as I dumped it into the drums,” he said.

The drums were then dropped into a shallow pit that was lined with polyurethane sheets, he said.

Government officials initially told Glowacki that the site he was referring to was an official mercury waste disposal site near the mill and that it was not a source of contamination. Later, the ministry told the community that this official site, which was established in 1971, contains mercury-contaminated building rubble and “sludge,” and it is encased in concrete and is being monitored.

Glowacki maintains that the site he is referencing is in a different location.

Three weeks ago, a government-funded report commissioned by Grassy Narrows was released. It cautions that despite the passage of time, mercury levels in sediments and fish downstream are still dangerously high.

The findings suggest the metal is still leaking into the river system. The source of the mercury leak could be the 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, such as a site like the one Glowacki is describing or the old chlor-alkali paper plant itself (as has been the case with other former plants). 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.

Wynne, saying she has been concerned about Grassy Narrows for years and noting her visit there during her time as minister of aboriginal affairs, added Tuesday: “If there is still a continued source of mercury leakage, obviously we’re going to remove that in the best way possible and do it as quickly as we can.”

While the recently released report, written by three freshwater scientists, said it’s possible to clean up the river system once the ongoing mercury source is found and stopped, Wynne also said scientists had previously advised the government that disturbing river and lake sediment could make the mercury contamination worse.

“I’m not going to authorize an action that is going to mean that there would be more mercury in the system . . . if there is a way of removing it, we’ll find it.”

This marked a change from the government’s initial reaction to the report, when an environment ministry spokesperson said there was “no evidence to suggest that mercury levels in the river system are such that any remediation, beyond continuing natural recovery, is warranted or advisable.”

Meanwhile, around the same time as Wynne made her comments Tuesday, frustrated Grassy Narrows leaders held a press conference in Winnipeg and demanded access to the alleged dumping ground so that they could bring in experts to help either locate or eliminate the possibility of the site. The area is on private property owned by Domtar, a pulp and paper manufacturer. A ministry spokesperson said the request by Grassy Narrows has been relayed to the company. Domtar has not yet responded to a request for comment from the Star.

As recently as 2014, the provincial government said “symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning are still evident” in Grassy Narrows. Symptoms include tremors, tunnel vision, impaired hearing and speech, and impaired finger movement.