News

Ontario is finally cleaning up a river that has poisoned First Nations for decades

A pulp and paper mill that dumped mercury in the English-Wabigoon River System poisoned the waterway, and the people who relied on it.
June 28, 2017, 1:22pm

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After 50 years, the government of Ontario has finally committed the funds needed to clean up a river that poisoned more than 300 people in the Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations with mercury dumped by a pulp and paper mill.

On Tuesday, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray called Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister to commit $85 million toward a cleanup “in partnership with First Nations.” The remediation action plan will include a study to identify all “hot spot” sites of mercury contamination, including areas that could be ongoing sources of mercury contamination, the chief told VICE News Wednesday.

“This commitment involves working with First Nations and partners to first identify all potentially contaminated sites, and then create and implement a comprehensive remediation action plan for the river system,” the government said in a statement.

Ontario had promised in February to clean up the river, but when the provincial budget was released in late April, there was no money for the cleanup.

“We met with Minister Murray [one week ago] asking them to find the money to get the clean up done, and I guess they found it,” Fobister said. “Happy to hear that, real happy.”

“I have never seen a case of such gross neglect.”

The minister told the Toronto Star, “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.”

The chief said Murray had also said that to him during the meeting. “It’s very true,” he said. “It’s been 40 years, and it takes 40 years to finally do a cleanup.”

For decades, Grassy Narrows residents have protested outside the Ontario legislature, demanding that the province clean up their river system, which was poisoned by a pulp and paper mill that dumped mercury in the English-Wabigoon River System between 1962 and 1970. That mercury contaminated the river sediment at least 250 kilometres downstream, and travelled up the food chain from small bugs living in the sediment to the fish that eat them. Walleye, large fish prized by the First Nations, have high concentrations of mercury, and eating those fish leads to poisoning. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause birth defects, learning disabilities, numbness in the feet and hands, and anxiety and depression, among other symptoms.

In the 1980s, the province committed to compensate those who tested positive for mercury poisoning. More than 1,000 people have applied for compensation, and over 300 have received it.

“It’s been 40 years, and it takes 40 years to finally do a cleanup.”

Over the years, the province had said it expected mercury to flush out of the river system, but scientists have found that mercury levels are still high.

Scientists have said a cleanup is possible. Diluting the mercury with clean clay sediments is one option that could make small fish safe to eat within five years. But a former mill worker who came forward to the Toronto Star has said he buried barrels of mercury near the mill site that could be an ongoing source of contamination.

“We are determined to right these historic wrongs, and we realize that actions speak louder than words,” the government statement reads.

The chief commended Premier Kathleen Wynne and Murray for following through on their commitment. He said the community would be celebrating Wednesday alongside a planned visit from environmentalist David Suzuki.

“It’s going to take time for the cleanup to take place,” Chief Fobister said. “They projected it’s probably going to take 10 years to get the remediation work done. But as long as the money is there, it will get done. We have to be patient for the cleanup to occur. It’s going to take time.”