'Considerable' study this summer to determine if mercury leaching upstream from Grassy Narrows, Ontario says
New studies underway since 2016 to determine if toxic chemical still entering the water
Officials with Ontario's environment ministry say field studies are continuing along the English-Wabigoon river system and at the pulp mill in Dryden to determine if the industrial property is an ongoing source of mercury leaching into the water upstream from two northern Ontario First Nations poisoned by the toxic element.
A confidential report done by True Grit Consulting in 2016 stated that the Ontario government was informed about visible mercury on the mill property as early as 1990; the province subsequently confirmed in 2018 that elevated levels of the chemical remained in the soil and ground water at the site.
What's not yet certain — and what studies now underway are tasked with finding out — is whether that mercury is migrating into the water or if there are other potential sources.
Provincial government representatives updated a House of Commons committee in June about efforts underway so far, as part of the Ontario government's commitment to find all the mercury contamination in the river and remediate it.
"The work plan for this year will assess whether this mercury [at the mill] is leaving the site into the river system," Frank Miklas, a director with Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, told the standing committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs on June 6. "Considerable scientific work, both in the English and Wabigoon Rivers and on the Dryden mill site, is currently in progress."
"If results of the mill site assessment show that mercury is being discharged from the site to the Wabigoon River, Ontario will ensure that action is taken to appropriately address mercury discharges from [the] site."
That site assessment is being led by Domtar, the mill's current owner, Miklas said. The company is not responsible for the historical dumping of mercury at the site.
Studies have linked the comparatively poor health of residents of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong First Nations in northwestern Ontario to mercury-contaminated effluent discharged into the river by Reed Paper, who owned the Dryden mill in the 1960s and early 1970s. The mercury was used at a chlor-alkali plant, which hasn't existed since the mid-1970s, as part of its paper-bleaching process.
The toxic chemical contaminated the water and poisoned the fish in it — a dietary staple of area First Nations. It also shuttered a thriving commercial fishery in Grassy Narrows and put fishing guides out of work, devastating the local economy.
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One study by Japanese researchers released in 2016 found that 90 per cent of people in the two First Nations show signs of poisoning, including the current generation.
"Since the '70s, mercury levels in fish in parts of the English and Wabigoon Rivers have declined, however, current mercury levels in fish remain high and consumption advisories are still in effect in many parts of the river system," Miklas told the committee of federal Liberal, Conservative and New Democrat MPs.
True Grit's report, which was commissioned by Domtar, said monitoring data available in 2016 was insufficient to determine whether mercury was leaching into the water and recommended further study.
"The purpose of the river assessment work is to collect important information about the current contamination levels in sediment and fish in the river system," Miklas said, adding those studies involve collecting samples from surface water, sediment as well as fish and other aquatic animals.
The work is being done in partnership with Grassy Narrows, Wabaseemong, Eagle Lake, Wabauskang and Wabigoon Lake First Nations, Miklas said.
All results are being shared with area communities, he added.
'Waiting for the results'
Funding for the field work comes from the $85 million trust the former Liberal government set up in 2017, which is administered by the province, Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong. Miklas said about $13 million has been spent so far.
Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle told the committee that the First Nation is involved with the ongoing work, saying that "this summer, we have a river team that will be doing studies close to the Dryden area."
"We're just waiting for the results."
Turtle said he's satisfied with how the studies are proceeding; the province said the work requires time.
"The mercury contamination affecting the English and Wabigoon Rivers is a very complex issue that requires meticulous scientific work to determine the best remediation course of action," Miklas told the committee.
"We know there continues to be significant work ahead of us."
With files from Jody Porter