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More Than 300 People in This Community Have Been Poisoned By Mercury, And Ontario Isn't Cleaning It Up

In the 1960s and 1970s, a pulp and paper mill dumped chemicals into the river system relied upon by Indigenous communities in northern Ontario. It's all still there.

by Hilary Beaumont
May 31 2016, 8:20pm

La nación originaria Grassy Narrows. Imagen vía Daily VICE.

After eating fish from the river for years, Chief Simon Fobister can't walk in a straight line. Instead, his feet take him to the left.

In 2014, Japanese doctors diagnosed the chief with mercury poisoning when they visited Grassy Narrows First Nation to study astonishingly high levels of the neurotoxin in the northern Ontario community's water. The chief is one of more than 300 people poisoned by mercury after a pulp and paper mill dumped chemicals into the river system in the 1960s and '70s.

In extreme cases, mercury poisoning can kill. Two years ago, the reserve lost a teenager, Calvin Kokopenace, to mercury poisoning.

"The river can be cleaned up, but the will is not there," Fobister told VICE News, speaking in Toronto where members of the reserve had gathered for the annual River Run protest that draws attention to the issue.

New research released Monday says mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River system that flows past Grassy Narrows can be cleaned up, but it would cost $30 to $50 million.

John Rudd, the lead author of the study, told VICE News his team analyzed both old and new data, including data from Ontario's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, and came to the conclusion that certain parts of the river system are still contaminated with high levels of mercury, and that the concentration of mercury in the fish was not decreasing with time.

Related: 'Clean Up the River,' Indigenous People Tell Justin Trudeau at the UN

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ontario's environment ministry said was "sympathetic to the concerns raised" and would be "carefully reviewing the report and its findings."

"We are working closely with Grassy Narrows on a proposed sampling plan, which would include sediment and fishing sampling," Gary Wheeler wrote in an email.

But when asked by the CBC to comment on the research, Wheeler said the province had reviewed the report but rejected the notion that the mercury could be cleaned up. "Currently there is no evidence to suggest that mercury levels in the river system are such that any remediation, beyond continuing natural recovery is warranted or advisable," he told CBC.

On Tuesday, Wheeler couldn't tell VICE News whether the province rejected the research or not.

Ontario has taken the approach that mercury will naturally flush out of the environment if given enough time. Since 1986, the province has compensated 311 residents for mercury poisoning through a Mercury Disability Board established following legal action by First Nations. Since the board's inception, 1,064 people from Grassy Narrows and other nearby First Nations have applied for compensation due to suspected mercury poisoning.

"I think from a scientific perspective it is possible," Rudd said when asked if a clean up is feasible.

Members of Grassy Narrows and supporters at an annual protest about the spill in 2010. (Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Between 1962 and 1970, Reed Paper mill in Dryden, Ontario dumped chemicals including mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system that runs past Grassy Narrows. The mercury settled into the sediment at the bottom of the river, contaminating the system at least 250 kilometers downstream. The mercury enters the food chain through bugs that live in the sediment and absorb the toxic chemical, and are eaten by small fish, which are eaten by larger fish. The mercury becomes more concentrated in larger fish, including Walleye, which are prized by locals.

Dredging could clean up some of the mercury in the sediment, Rudd said, though it could also disturb the mercury allowing more of it to enter the system. Instead the best cleanup method would be to dilute the mercury with clean clay sediments that would bring mercury down to an acceptable level, he said. Such a technique could see consumable levels of mercury in smaller fish within five years.

Rudd didn't know why the province initially rejected the idea that a cleanup is possible. "We're actually looking at the same data that they are, but we're coming to very different conclusions."

The study, released Monday, was paid for with funding by the federal government at the behest of Grassy Narrows, although the First Nation had no role in the study itself.

Related: After the Deaths of Two Teenage Girls, This Aboriginal Community Says the System Failed Them

When they visited the reserve in 2014, a group of leading experts on mercury poisoning from Japan's Centre for Minamata Studies urged the government to do more for people suffering from mercury-related illnesses.

Fobister called on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to make a decision one way or another on the cleanup.

"Scientists were saying that it can't be cleaned up, but we have scientists now on our side that say it can be," he said. "Now it's going to be in Kathleen Wynne's court. She's got to say whether they're going to clean it up or not."

On Monday, Wynne officially apologized to Ontario First Nations for the province's residential school system, which stripped Indigenous children of their culture and subjected them to abuse. The province announced it would spend $250 million over the next three years to reconcile relationships with Indigenous people.

Cleaning up mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows would be a good first step toward truth and reconciliation, Fobister said. "Here we are, you know? There's an issue right on the table that she can take care of."

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont