A team of scientists has released a report suggesting that an old chemical plant in Dryden, Ont., is still leaking mercury and contaminating the Wabigoon-English River system upstream from the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

Last summer, the team sampled the mud at the bottom of the river as it passed the old paper mill site where paper was bleached and from two lakes upstream.

Wabigoon River

The small dots indicate where mercury levels found in the river's mud were low, while the larger red dots indicate a higher concentration. (Wabigoon River mercury remediation study)

At a news conference in Toronto on Tuesday, the team announced that mercury levels in the mud are low until the river passes the plant site.

"The concentrations at the mill site and downstream to the mill site are unequivocally related to mercury contamination, industrial mercury contamination — these can't be derived from natural sources," said Brian Branfireun, a biology professor at Western University in London, Ont., and one of the authors of the report.

"If someone asked me to draw a textbook example of a point-source contamination issue this would be what that looks like."

Another author of the report, longtime Wabigoon River researcher John Rudd, said the findings suggest a hidden source of pollution from the plant is leaching into the river and heading downstream. 

"What we're likely looking at here is ongoing, legacy pollution from mercury that was spilled decades ago," he said.

'Deeply concerning'

Reed Paper in Dryden, Ont., dumped chemicals in the river in the 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in mercury poisoning among First Nations people who ate fish caught in the area.

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister called the report, "very, very deeply concerning."

"It's been 40 years now, [previous government officials] thought the mercury would just wash itself away and that would be it. I'm sad to say that hasn't happened."

Last week, Ontario's Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray promised to find and remediate all the mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.

The announcement came after a meeting between Premier Kathleen Wynne, Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister and environmentalist David Suzuki.

"It's going to be a challenge, obviously," said Fobister. "But at least, as the old saying goes, it's better late than never."

More than 90 per cent of the population in the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations show signs of mercury poisoning, according to research released in September by Japanese experts who have been studying the health of people there for decades.

Call for quick action

David Sone with the environmental group Earthroots, which has been working with the Grassy Narrows First Nation, said he hopes the new report will bring urgency to the province's timetable and get the federal government involved.

"This underscores the need to get to the bottom of this problem immediately and begin cleaning it up. It also underscores the need for both levels of government, including the Trudeau government, to get behind a cleanup," he said.

"A single meal can have impacts on (a mother's) fetus if she eats that mercury-laden fish.… That child might struggle with life-long learning disabilities because of that."

Rudd and the rest of his team are recommending a detailed groundwater study be commissioned to pinpoint where and how the mercury is leaking out.

"From the point of view of Grassy Narrows and also the government of Ontario, I think, this in a way could turn out to be good news, because it's always much simpler and less costly to clean up a point-source pollution than it is to clean up a pollution situation that's very dispersed and ongoing for many decades," he said.

The report's authors hail from the University of North Carolina, R & K Research Inc., Reed Harris Environmental Ltd., and Beat Environmental Inc.

Grassy Narrows First Nation map

(Canadian Press)