Ontario commits $85 million to clean up ‘gross neglect’ at Grassy Narrows

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[Generations sickened by mercury poisoning from a paper plant prompt province to agree to fund cleanup. How can the politicians possibly just be figuring this out fifty years later? *RON*]

David BruserRobert BenzieJayme Poisson, The Star, 27 June 2017

Water flows in the Wabigoon River that is contaminated with mercury near Grassy Narrows. (TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)
The Ontario government is committing $85 million to finally clean up the mercury-contaminated Wabigoon River that has poisoned the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and nearby Whitedog First Nation for generations.

The “comprehensive remediation action plan” will also involve finding all contaminated sites that could be leaking mercury into the river.

At Queen’s Park, Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray did not mince words.

“If you ask me when would I like to have done this? Fifty years ago,” Murray said in an interview Tuesday. “I have never seen a case of such gross neglect. I am embarrassed as a Canadian that this ever happened and I can’t understand how people for 50 years sat in that environment office knowing this was going on as a minister and simply didn’t do anything about it,” he thundered.

The province’s historic commitment follows a Star investigation that probed the impact of the poisoning and decades-long lack of action by government.

And it comes after decades of activism by Grassy Narrows community members, from chiefs to mothers to youth. Most recently, “River Run” protests in Toronto have been led by the younger generations.

Between 1962 and 1970, the paper plant in Dryden, Ont., then owned by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the river about 100 kilometres upstream from Grassy Narrows.

The mercury, a potent neurotoxin, contaminated the fish, which poisoned the people of Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.

The mercury contamination still plagues these Indigenous communities in northern Ontario. 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, about 50 years on.

There is no suggestion that Domtar, the current pulp mill operator — several owners removed from Reed Paper — is responsible for any source of mercury.

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister said: “This river is the lifeblood of my people. For too long we have suffered from this preventable tragedy. May this be the beginning of a new era of hope for my people, and may justice flow at long last.”

Speaking outside the cabinet room moments after Premier Kathleen Wynne and her executive council approved the plan, Murray said the day Wynne appointed him minister three years ago, she said: “You’ve got to get this done and it better get done before the next election.”

With voters headed to the polls on June 7, 2018, there is political pressure to tackle the cleanup.

The major announcement came the day before environmentalist David Suzuki was scheduled to visit Grassy Narrows. He was expected to hear strong concerns from the First Nation over the government’s progress on its commitment to clean up the mercury.

Murray hailed both Fobister for his commitment to the issue and the Star for its relentless coverage.

“The Toronto Star, which is the journal of record, actually shone a light on it and didn’t give up. The Star was persistent and drove the agenda,” the minister said.

“It just horrifies me that we actually allow these things to happen and it speaks to the systemic racism and the colonialism of our society,” he said, noting such dumping would never have been permitted in Toronto.

The projected $85-million cost of the cleanup was pegged by top scientist John Rudd, who has experience with mercury cleanups in the U.S. and who initially recommended the Wabigoon be cleaned back in 1983. Despite the then environment minister making that recommendation, it was ignored by the government of the day, which chose to let the river clean itself naturally.

The Star began its investigation into mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows last year with the story of retired mill worker Kas Glowacki, 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.

Late last year, near where Glowacki recalls the 1972 mercury dump happening, Star reporters and volunteers from Earthroots dug holes in a clearing behind the old mill and found significantly higher-than-normal levels of mercury — nearly 80 times the level expected to be found in soil from that region of the province.

“We have all of the clearance and approvals from the Treasury Board,” Murray told the Star, adding that the fund will be managed by the province and Grassy Narrows and Whitedog,

Chief Fobister said he hopes “this promise is fulfilled no matter who is in power.”

“I am really happy that Ontario has finally made this historic commitment to fund the cleanup of our river,” he added. “Now we need to put the funds into a trust.”

When asked if the $85-million commitment will survive future elections and governments, Murray told the Star the “joint governance” model of the fund, as well as language that can be added to remediation work contracts, “makes it very hard for someone in the future to mess with.”

“We want to get contracts out the door as soon as we can. We have to start this work,” he said.

The province says it has already spent $2.5 million for sampling and analysis work to determine the extent of the mercury contamination and which remediation options may be most appropriate for each contamination site. The province said it will be adding another $2.7 million this year to support that ongoing pre-cleanup work.

“I’m feeling like this is a landmark day,” Murray said. “I was very proud of (the premier) today.”

Physical symptoms of mercury poisoning include loss of muscle co-ordination and tunnel vision. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cognitive damage, according to recent research. A recent study by Japanese experts concluded that 90 per cent of people tested in Grassy Narrows and Whitedog have a symptom of mercury poisoning.

“One of the most toxic things about mercury is it has held back the (communities) from the future they should have,” Murray said. “Let’s get on with it.”

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