Decades later, Grassy Narrows First Nation waits for solution to mercury poisoning

"There's no dispute that band members are suffering from … mercury poisoning."
Research released in Sept. shows more than 90 per cent of the population at Grassy Narrows First Nation is experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning. (Jody Porter/CBC)

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The Grassy Narrows community in northern, Ont., has been plagued with mercury poisoning  for decades — affecting its river, its fish, and its people.

In the 1970s, Kas Glowacki, who worked in the old Dryden, Ont., pulp and paper mill — upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nations — emptied out a salt vat and came across mercury.

"There's mercury that was pooling in my shovel in the vat itself and then we buried it. And the way the barrels were buried, it made me wonder whether or not it would be leaking."

Glowacki, now 61-years-old, suffers from illnesses he attributes to mercury exposure.

After 40 years, he questions if anyone was monitoring the site where the barrels were buried. Two years ago, he wrote to the Ontario government to clear his conscience of the dumping.

The Ontario government did look into his claims and concluded it couldn't find the site.

The environmental group Earthroots acted on Glowacki's information to test soil upstream from Grassy Narrows.

Earthroots chair and former Ontario environmental commissioner Gord Miller tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti they found "extremely high levels of mercury."

"[The] levels of mercury … if they existed in a brownfield site, you know, in southern, Ontario, the government would insist before you did anything on that site — it would all have to be excavated properly, and sent to a hazardous waste site," says Miller.

Grassy Narrows band members rally at Queen's Park, June 2016, to demand the province clean up the river that runs through their community. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Miller says the land is not right by the mill but is a remote, forest area — "back lands behind the mill."

"The contamination is as great there as you'd find in a heavily-contaminated industrial site."

This month, the federal government has promised to work with the province of Ontario on "next steps" to address the ongoing mercury contamination.

Chief of Grassy Narrows Simon Fobistertells Tremonti it's a good sign the government is involved given their resistance in the past.

"We had great difficulty in even having the federal government come to the to mercury disability board review, they were afraid of liability on their part."

The Current did request an interview with Carolyn Bennett, minister of Indigenous affairs and northern development, but she was unavailable. Bennett did send a statement that reads in part:

"As part of the mercury disability board renewal, we, along with federal and provincial partners will meet with the Chief of Grassy Narrows to determine next steps to effectively act on the mercury contamination."

Chief Fobister reacts to Bennett's statement as "an about face, but that's okay too." He tells Tremonti he remains positive.

He says he would like to have "our independent scientists go to that site and examine it" and has made this request with provincial Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glenn Murray.

"There's no dispute that band members are suffering from … mercury poisoning," Fobister insists.

He recognizes Ontario has taken the first step by launching a $300,000 study for scientists to find the hotspot where the mercury sludges are located and to recommend clean-up methods.

"However what compounds the issue now is there is still mercury being leaked from the paper rmill site."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese and Pacinthe Mattar.