Mercury Poisoning still a serious issue in Grassy Narrows

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wabigoon river bridgeTHUNDER BAY – Back in the day, in Dryden the Wabigoon River was where the effluent from the paper mill was dumped. The bridge just downstream from the mill would foam up with the chemicals. Miles downstream at Upper Falls, along the Red Lake Road, that same foam and the smell of the mill was very evident. Back forty or fifty years ago, that foam and the smell was said to be the “smell of prosperity” and as Dryden Paper was the main employer in the area it was accepted as alright.

The impact of the chemicals, including mercury which were dumped into the English River / Wabigoon River system poisoned the waters, contaminated the fish and are still impacting the people of the Grassy Narrows First Nation.

On Wednesday in Queen’s Park, Sarah Campbell the MPP from Kenora asked, “For decades, the communities of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog First Nation have been dealing with the after-effects of mercury poisoning. A new study by the world’s leading mercury poisoning scientist, Dr. Harada, shows that 59% of community members are suffering from the effects of this poisoning, including 44% of those who were born after the dumping of mercury had ended. Despite that, despite the cessation of dumping, this proves that the poisoning continues.

“Now we find out that this poisoning will affect many generations. They are forced to rely on scientists in Japan to monitor their health and the impact because this government walked away in the 1990s. Will this government act immediately to sit down with Grassy Narrows and Whitedog to listen to their concerns?”

Ontario’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kathleen O. Wynne responded. “First of all, let me say that this is a dreadful situation that never should have happened. The dumping that happened in the 1960s and 1970s never should have happened. I welcome the people in the gallery who have come. I will be going out to the front lawn today to meet with them. What I commit is that I will do everything I can to re-engage the federal government and the community in a conversation about this situation”.

“I have received the report. I have had a chance to look at it. I know that there’s a lot of work that has been done—mercury levels are down about 87%—but there’s still a consumption advisory in place on the fish. That’s why it’s very important that we continue this conversation. But I will say to the member opposite: We weren’t in office in the 1990s, and so the decisions that were made in the 1990s are not the decisions that we have made”.

Campbell then stated, “In the 1980s, a compensation fund was set up for community members to help them deal with the after-effects of this poisoning. Unfortunately, many have found it nearly impossible to access the compensation that they deserve. In one case, a woman who was used as the test case in court to prove the existence of mercury poisoning has not even received compensation herself”.

The Minister stated, “I just want to be clear that on April 21, 2010, the then minister met with a community delegation led by Chief Simon Fobister. In June 2010, we formed an interministerial working group to look at the issues that had come out of the Harada report. In June 2011, staff from my ministry met with Chief Fobister on the community’s concerns. Since then, we’ve been waiting for a response from the community to set up that next meeting. That needs to happen. If the communication has not been in place and we need to reach out and set up that meeting, that’s what we will do, because that ADM committee needs to have the input of the community so we understand the situation better. I’ll be talking to the folks on the lawn today. I will be having that conversation, and we will re-engage; absolutely”.

On Thursday, the Minister did meet with the delegation on the front lawn of Queen’s Park. However it appears no follow up meetings have yet to be set.

Background: The First Nation experienced mercury poisoning from Dryden Chemical Company, a chloralkali process plant, located in Dryden, Ontario that supplied both sodium hydroxide and chlorine used in large amounts for bleaching paper during production for the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company. Dryden Chemical company discharged their effluent into the Wabigoon-English River system.

The Ontario provincial government has initially told the First Nation communities to stop eating fish — their main source of protein — and closed down their commercial fishery. In 90%+ unemployment rate in 1970, closing of the commercial fishery meant economic disaster for the Indian Reserve. The closure also effected the tourism industry, where locals acted as guides for out of town fisherman. Walleye in local waterways are no longer safe to eat due to mercury contamination.

Both the paper and chemical companies ceased operations in 1976, after 24 years of operations.

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