Ontario premier vows “action plan” for poisoned river
Ontario has promised to implement an “action plan” to clean up the mercury-contaminated English-Wabigoon River system that has poisoned more than 300 residents of two First Nations, Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.
The premier’s office sent VICE News a statement saying the province was committed to identifying “all potentially contaminated sites, and to creating and implementing a comprehensive remediation action plan” for the river system.
The premier made the promise to Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister on Friday during a meeting at her office. In a statement on Monday, Chief Fobister said Premier Kathleen Wynne committed at the meeting to clean up the river system along with the site of the Reed pulp and paper mill in Dryden, where a former worker said he helped bury barrels containing mercury in 1972.
However, the statement from the premier’s office says it is committed to studying the sites and coming up with a “remediation action plan” — it does not specify it will “clean up” the sites.
“We need to work with partners to take all measures to stop further mercury from entering the river.”
The premier’s office said it is in the middle of a two-year study funded to find the extent of mercury contamination in the river system and determine the best solutions for each site. And as a result of new evidence of industrial contamination near the mill site, the premier’s office said it is now “conducting a full and rigorous mercury contamination assessment of the entire mill site.”
“We need to be sure unequivocally if the site is an ongoing source of mercury, and if it is, then we need to work with partners to take all measures to stop further mercury from entering the river,” the statement says.
Grassy Narrows First Nation has been calling on Ontario to clean up the river for more than 40 years. Evidence of mercury contamination in the river dates back to the 1970s.
“Premier Wynne clearly promised to me that she would clean up our river and the Dryden mill site,” Chief Fobister, who himself has been diagnosed with mercury poisoning, said in a statement on Monday. “Premier Wynne promised me that Grassy Narrows would lead the clean-up and that it would begin as soon as humanly possible.
“I welcome this historic commitment and I am eager to work to make this promise a reality so that my people can enjoy our culture and our homeland in health again without fear of an invisible poison. When our fish are safe to eat we will know that this promise has been kept.”
“When our fish are safe to eat we will know that this promise has been kept.”
Between 1962 and 1970, the paper mill dumped mercury and other chemicals into the river. The mercury settled into the sediment at the bottom of the river, contaminating it for more than 250 kilometres downstream. The mercury was absorbed by bugs that live in the sediment, which were eaten by smaller fish that became the food of larger fish, such as Walleye, which are prized by First Nations along the river.
Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects the brain and nervous system and can lead to birth defects, and even death. In 2014, a teenager from Grassy Narrows, Calvin Kokopenace, died of mercury poisoning.
Following legal action by Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations in 1977, Ontario set up a Mercury Disability Board to compensate people with mercury poisoning. To date, 1,064 people have applied for compensation and 311 of those have received it.
The premier’s office is also working with the federal government to “explore the best options for reforming the Mercury Disability Board process so that it aligns with the best interests of the two First Nations.”
Cover: Peter Power/The Globe and Mail