Industry off the hook for mercury monitoring at mill that poisoned Grassy Narrows First Nation

Taxpayers, not industry, will have to pay for environmental monitoring at a pulp mill in Dryden, Ont., infamous for its poisoning of people in two northern Ontario First Nations, according to a recent ruling by an Ontario court.

Deal struck by Ontario in 1979 to save Dryden mill continues to indemnify Weyerhaeuser, Resolute, court rules

Former owners of the paper mill in Dryden, Ont. are not liable for remediation orders from the Ontario government, a court ruled. (Louis-Phillippe Leblanc/Radio-Canada)

Taxpayers, not industry, will have to pay for environmental monitoring at a pulp mill in Dryden, Ont., infamous for its poisoning of people in two northern Ontario First Nations, according to a recent ruling by an Ontario court.

Ontario was attempting to get two former owners of the mill to pay for ongoing monitoring at the mills former disposal site where 9,000 kilograms of mercury was dumped into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s and 70s. 

But a deal struck by Ontario to facilitate the sale of the mill in 1979, helped protect the future owners of the mill, according to a ruling by the Ontario Superior Court in July.

The mercury continues to contaminate the water and fish and poison the people at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nations, who rely on fish as a dietary staple.

A recent report, funded by Ontario, shows there may be an ongoing source of contamination at the mill site.

In 2011, Ontario's Ministry of Environment issued a remediation order against pulp and paper giants Weyerhaeuser and Resolute, both former owners of the mill, regarding a mercury disposal site on the mill property.

The American companies fought the order, and last month, the Ontario Superior Court sided with them.

The ruling goes back to a 1979 decision by government to encourage the sale of the paper mill while its owners were being sued for the mercury contamination by Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nations.

Protection from future environmental liability was offered to then-mill owner Great Lakes Paper and previous owner Reed Paper by the province in 1979, in part because "enabling the modernization and upgrading of the plant in the community of Dryden was deemed to be in the public interest," according to court documents. 

That protection was reiterated in a 1985 settlement of the lawsuit because both companies "agreed to contribute substantial sums of money" toward the $17 million of compensation package for the First Nations.

The court ruling in July determined that agreement results in indemnification to Resolute and Weyerhaeuser, who also once owned the Dryden mill, for their costs of complying with Ontario's environmental remediation orders. 

The mercury disposal site was severed from the mill property in 2000 when Bowater (now Resolute) owned the mill. The site was abandoned as part of Bowater's bankruptcy proceedings in 2009.