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Grassy Narrows: Why Ontario decided not to clean up the mercury

The Ontario government economist who wrote a 1986 report recommending against cleaning up the mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows First Nation said he stands by his work, even as new research shows mercury levels continue to rise.
Jack Donnan, the government economist who recommended against cleaning up the mercury near Grassy Narrows, says people in the community should be given more information about where it's safe to catch fish to eat. (CBC)
CBC News has obtained Ontario government documents from the 1980s recommending against cleaning up the mercury near Grassy Narrows. We hear from Jack Donnan, the man who wrote the report. 5:08
The Ontario government economist who wrote a 1986 report recommending against cleaning up the mercury contamination near Grassy Narrows First Nation in northwestern Ontario said he stands by his work, even as new research shows mercury levels continue to rise.

Jack Donnan was the senior economist with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment at the time he wrote a cost-benefit analysis concluding that spending $20 million over six years to dredge the English-Wabigoon river system wasn't economically viable.

Reed Paper in Dryden dumped chemicals in the river in the 1960s and early 70s, resulting in mercury poisoning among First Nations people who eat fish caught in the area. A report commissioned by the provincial government and released publicly in June showed mercury levels are rising in some lakes and rivers.

"After reviewing my report and conclusions, I stand by my recommendation against the dredging project," Donnan told CBC News.

But Donnan said he was surprised to learn that the government is not providing more accurate information to the nearby First Nations about the ongoing contamination.

It's a recommendation Donnan made as part of his 1986 report — one that was reiterated by fresh water scientist Patricia Sellers in the latest research and recommendations on mercury contamination at Grassy Narrows.

'More monitoring'

"I think that the things that need to be done are more monitoring of the rivers and lakes that were initially contaminated and more systematic information to the band members on where they can go to find fish that are safe," Donnan said.

The award-winning environmental economist said his analysis in the 1980s faced two major challenges. The first had to do with estimating the effectiveness of remediation and how that would compare to letting the mercury naturally dissipate.

"They came up with various time frames from 15 years, to 20 years, to one run came up to about 100 years," he said. "The results were so wide and so uncertain that you really couldn't tell whether the dredging would actually make a big difference, compared to just leaving the natural processes to carry on."

The natural process has left some parts of the waterway with current mercury levels that are twice the Canadian threshold for remediation, according to the latest research.
Grassy Narrows First Nation Deputy Chief Randy Fobister is calling for immediate action on a report released publicly in June that says the mercury in the English-Wabigoon River system should be remediated. (freegrassy.net)

"Maybe the technologies that we were working with in terms of forecasting have been improved, so that the forecasting would be more accurate, I'm not sure about that," Donnan said.

The other challenge Donnan said he faced at the time of his cost-benefit analysis was costing out the presumed benefits.

Six benefits were identified:

  1. reduced physical and mental health risk to the residents of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations
  2. increased commercial fishing employment and revenues
  3.  increased subsistence food fishing
  4.  increased enjoyment of sport fishing by resident and non-resident anglers
  5.  non-user benefits to non-residents of Ontario and Canada
  6. increased living standards for residents of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations

No estimates

There were "no estimates of when, if ever, these benefits would be realized," Donnan said, because no one could say for certain whether dredging would reduce mercury levels in fish to an acceptable level for eating. 

In the end, only two of the six benefits were assigned values. The annual value of the commercial fishery was estimated at $100,000 and the subsistence food fishery was given a value of $35,000. That's the amount the province was spending on supplying frozen fish to Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nations at the time.

"To make the dredging project, which would cost about $20 million over six years... you would have to attribute a value of over $12 million [over six years] to the other four sets of benefits to make the project viable financially and economically," Donnan said.

The latest report recommends that any renewed discussion of remediation includes the people at Grassy Narrows, something which Donnan said he was unable to do as part of his analysis.

Premier Kathleen Wynne said more current research is needed before Ontario can consider a cleanup of the mercury.

Clarifications

  • The following quote has been re-edited from a previous version of this story to more accurately represent what was said: "...you would have to attribute a value of over $12 million [over six years] to the other four sets of benefits to make the project viable financially and economically," Donnan said.
    Jul 27, 2015 2:34 PM ET

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