Updated – Ontario knew about Grassy Narrows mercury site for decades, but kept it secret
Grassy Narrows resident Steve Fobister is tested for mercury poisoning symptoms by the late Dr. Masazumi Harada in 2010 -Kate Harries photo
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A confidential 2016 report says provincial officials were told in the 1990s that the site of a paper mill near Grassy Narrows First Nation was contaminated with mercury — and that the poison is likely still present
By David Bruser and Jayme Poisson Toronto Star
Government officials knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under the paper mill upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, but the people there did not find out until this week, the Star has learned.
During the intervening years, as the residents of Grassy Narrows and scientists sounded the alarm that the neurotoxin was poisoning the fish and the people who eat it, government official after government official kept repeating that there was no ongoing source of mercury in the Wabigoon River that is the lifeblood of Grassy Narrows.
The residents were told that since the mill, then owned by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon between 1962 and 1970, the river would, over time, clean itself naturally.
A confidential report, commissioned by the current owner of the mill, Domtar, and prepared in 2016 by an environmental consulting firm, tells a different story: the province knew decades ago that the site of the mill was contaminated with mercury. Today, the report says, it likely still is.
Further, the report — which is based on a “collection of historical sampling” from the mill’s archives — also reveals that groundwater samples taken from wells on the mill property over the years have come back with extremely high mercury levels.
The province’s Environment Ministry said it was unaware of this well data until it got the report in July 2016.
The report says there are two potential ongoing sources of mercury at the site of the old mill: under the old chlor-alkali plant where “additional mercury-contaminated soils are known to remain present beneath the building,” and a ditch beside the river where there has been no monitoring.
These potential sources, experts say, could be contaminating the river still.
Grassy Narrows grandmother and health advocate Judy Da Silva calls the development “sickening.”
“It shows how lowly we are, the Anishinabeg, to the government and corporations. Like we are not worth it to be alive,” said Da Silva. “They knew about this poison and they did nothing. They didn’t even tell us. It is awful.”
Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister said: “For decades I have been seeking justice for my people for mercury poisoning, searching for answers, searching for help. Never once was I told that mercury poison is still under the mill, right next to our river. I was told over and over that the mill site was cleaned up and that the problem ended in the ’70s. I now see that was a deception and my people have paid the price with their health.”
A Domtar spokesperson said his company commissioned the report in 2016 to “support the province in meeting its responsibilities for managing mercury contamination on the site.”
There is no suggestion that Domtar, a pulp manufacturer several owners removed from Reed Paper, is responsible for any source of mercury.
In a statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Environment Ministry said the province is currently spending millions to assess the extent of the mercury contamination leading up to its $85-million plan to clean the river, and that all information will be shared.
As for why the report was not released sooner, the ministry spokesperson said “we could not publicly release this information as it is derived from a third-party report that is owned by Domtar and was prepared by their consultant.”
The Domtar-commissioned report says that in 1990, a work crew repairing the concrete floor in a building on mill property saw mercury in the soil beneath. At the time the owner of the plant was Canadian Pacific Forest Products Ltd., a company no longer in existence, as far as the Star can tell.
The Ontario Environment Ministry was alerted and “a total of 35 drums of mercury-contaminated soil were removed from the site for disposal at a licensed facility,” the report said. It also said that a plastic barrier may have been installed “between the contaminated soil and the clean backfill.” Post-excavation sampling revealed “it was known that additional contaminated soils … remained present in the area.”
Mercury visible in the soil is “gross industrial pollution,” said leading mercury scientist John Rudd, who has studied Grassy Narrows and has been involved in the remediation of other industrial facilities that used mercury in the production process. “When you see that, it’s the worst possible situation. I’ve seen that at other plants. That mercury then dissolves into the groundwater and the groundwater could then move the mercury toward the river.”
In the years that followed the discovery of the mercury in the soil, nearby wells were also tested by the various companies that owned the mill, revealing groundwater with mercury at more than 4,482 times today’s provincial water quality levels of 0.29 micrograms per litre.
The report said the wells’ poor construction and rust undermined the accuracy of the mercury reading. Rudd, who has been working with Grassy Narrows and read the confidential report, said the metal construction of these wells may actually have led to an under-reporting of the mercury level in the groundwater at that time.
Roughly 80 subsequent tests from 10 wells throughout the 1990s and until 2006 showed lower but still elevated levels of mercury. The data is limited — there is not consistent data available for the wells. The report mentions some of the wells have been destroyed.
“Domtar cannot speak to the purpose or attest to the veracity of historical mercury sampling data,” said spokesperson David Struhs, adding the company has owned the property only since 2007.
The confidential report shows a well tested last year for the first time since 2006 returned a mercury level nearly three times the provincial threshold.
All wells were near the Wabigoon River that flows downstream from Dryden, where the mill is located, to Grassy Narrows.
The Domtar-commissioned report noted that of all the groundwater wells near the river, three “key” wells positioned on land that slopes down and east toward the river showed groundwater mercury levels below provincial limits. The report also says that although the limited data shows no “apparent significant loading of mercury” to the river, “it is not presently possible to make a firm conclusion.”
Rudd said these may not be the key wells and that a stream bed beneath the mill could be taking the groundwater on a different route to the river — a route that runs toward the wells that in the early 1990s showed mercury levels above the provincial limit.
“Although the provincial government oversaw the closure of the chlor-alkali plant, which was the source of mercury at the site, no long-term, consistent monitoring plan for mercury was ever put in place. We think Ontario is now at a turning point,” said Struhs, adding that the government made an “important change in direction” last month when it agreed to pay for a comprehensive assessment that should “once and for all” determine whether mercury from the site is leaking into the river.
In its statement, Ontario’s Environment Ministry said it currently has heavy machinery on site to install a network of groundwater monitoring wells.
Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, has sickened generations who consider walleye a dietary staple. Physical symptoms of mercury poisoning include loss of muscle co-ordination and tunnel vision. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cognitive damage.
Recent research by Japanese experts shows residents, including the younger generation, continue to have symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Believing the river was not cleaning itself, and feeling certain that the toxin has been poisoning them, leaders from Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations have for years been asking the government for information on the scope of the mercury contamination.
Most recently, there was a letter to a senior Environment Ministry staffer in 2015, and another letter to then environment minister Glen Murray in March 2016 that asked for information on mercury contamination “without further delay.”
When representatives for Grassy Narrows asked Domtar for a copy of the report, as well as any other information the company had about possible mercury contamination, they were told by the company to file a freedom of information request with the government, according to emails obtained by the Star. Domtar told the Star it gave a copy of the report to the community in September. A representative for Grassy Narrows told the Star that the person who received it did not at the time realize its significance.
Rudd — who has received Grassy Narrows funding to measure mercury contamination in the Wabigoon River system — has repeatedly said the entire area around the old paper processing plant should be examined because, historically, these types of plants have been known to be sources of contamination long after they stopped using mercury in the paper-bleaching process.
The information in the report is “what I expected all along,” he said.
Until now, no one had told Grassy Narrows or Rudd about the mercury underneath the chemical building or the high well readings, Chief Fobister and Rudd said.
Rudd said this is “very disappointing,” because if it had been known sooner, “the situation would have been very different now. It might be much better.”
He added: “What happens with pollution like this is it spreads and spreads, and until you turn off the source, the situation gets worse and worse. If this had been well understood in the 1990s and something was done, then there would be a lot smaller a cleanup job than there is going to have to be now.”
Grassy Narrows’ legacy of mercury poisoning began in 1962, when the paper plant in Dryden, then owned by Reed Paper, began to dump mercury into the river about 100 kilometres upstream from the First Nation’s home. By the time it stopped in 1970, about 10 tonnes of the toxin had been released.
Meanwhile, recent key findings by the Star, environmental group Earthroots and top scientists have shown high levels of mercury in soil, fish and river sediment — all strongly suggesting the site of the mill is still leaking mercury.
Earlier this year, the Star and Earthroots found soil on mill property that had mercury readings up to 80 times normal levels.
Then top mercury scientists reported that sediment in the stretch of the Wabigoon River that flows past the plant had mercury levels up to 130 times normal levels. Both findings came after the Star revealed that walleye downstream are the most mercury-contaminated in the province.
Before these findings, leading scientists from Japan had been steadily releasing reports that showed a high number of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog residents with symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Government officials have repeatedly downplayed the mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows.
In 1984, when the environment minister of the day recommended the government clean the river, he was ignored, and the river was left to clean itself.
In 2010, Leona Aglukkaq, then federal health minister, said of Grassy Narrows: “This is one of those projects that we had reviewed and determined was safe.”
The Ontario Environment Ministry said in February 2016 “there is no evidence to suggest that mercury levels in the river system are such that any remediation, beyond continuing natural sedimentation remediation, would be warranted.”
Four months later, the Star published the story of Kas Glowacki, a retired mill worker who said that in 1972 he was part of a group who “haphazardly” dumped drums filled with salt and mercury into a pit behind the mill.
This prompted the province to search for the barrels, and in November 2016, then environment minister Glen Murray said in the legislature that “there are no barrels buried and there is no source.”
His comments came a few months after the government received the confidential memo detailing contaminated soil and groundwater, according to Domtar.
Murray, who has since left the cabinet and provincial government and is now executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, told the Star, “I got a briefing on it. I never actually saw the report.” He said he has no recollection of being told by ministry staff about the 1990 incident when mill workers saw mercury in the soil or the numerous findings of elevated mercury in groundwater.
Murray said he recalls the Environment Ministry considering “legal issues” surrounding what information the ministry could share and what information was owned by Domtar.
After Murray’s comments in the legislature, the Star and Earthroots found contaminated soil in the area just west of the mill where Glowacki recalled dumping the barrels.
Mercury does not break down in the environment and can build up in living things, a process known as bioaccumulation, “inflicting increasing levels of harm on higher-order species,” according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Bacteria that thrive in wet, low-oxygen environments such as lake bottoms turn mercury into its most toxic form, methylmercury. The methylmercury migrates up the food chain to fish and then the locals who eat the fish.
Absorbed through the digestive tract, methylmercury “readily enters the brain,” where it can remain for a long time, according to Health Canada. In a pregnant woman, it can build in the fetal brain and other tissues.
Grassy Narrows’ robust fishing tourism industry, especially at Ball Lake Lodge, was decimated in the 1970s when news of the mercury dumping broke. The commercial fishermen and guides went on welfare.
What many residents of Grassy Narrows now have, according to Japanese scientists, is Minamata disease — also known as methylmercury poisoning. It was first discovered in 1956 in Japan, where illnesses were linked to the industrial waste water from a chemical factory that dumped between 200 and 600 tonnes of mercury (far more than the Dryden plant) into the water system. More severe effects in Japan included paralysis, coma and death. Japanese scientist Dr. Masazumi Harada spent the majority of his career examining the symptoms of the disease.
Harada continued his work in Canada and first tested community members of Grassy Narrows in 1975. He found people with mercury levels more than three times the Health Canada limit in Grassy Narrows and seven times the limit in nearby Whitedog.
When Harada returned in 2004, all of the people who had tested over the limit were dead.
Another study by Harada published in 2005 showed 79 per cent of 175 people tested in those two communities in 2002 and 2004 had or may have had Minamata disease.
Harada’s 2011 study found 74 per cent of people diagnosed by his team as impacted or possibly impacted by mercury were not receiving any form of compensation.
Canadian scientist Donna Mergler — who, in a recently released report, reviewed decades of scientific research on mercury’s effects — noted that today’s science shows that mercury poisoning causes damage at low levels previously considered harmless.
In her report, Mergler reviewed cord blood data collected by Health Canada from Grassy Narrows babies between 1978 and 1994. “At these cord blood (mercury) concentrations, there is consensus from the scientific literature that there would be effects on children’s neurodevelopment,” the report said.
With files from Tamar Harris