- Created on Thursday, 16 February 2017 01:41
First Nations chief says Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised action and “wants to get the ball rolling.”
Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister Sr. Fobister has been fighting to have the mercury-contamination of his people addressed for more than 40 years, after a Dryden paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970. (TODD KOROL / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)
Nearly five decades after mercury was dumped in the river upstream from their home, the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation have received a clear provincial commitment to clean up the potent neurotoxin that has been making them sick.
Environment Minister Glen Murray and Indigenous Relations Minister David Zimmer said in a statement Monday they were “completely committed” to finding areas near Grassy Narrows contaminated with mercury and creating a plan to clean it up. That includes a “full and rigorous” assessment of the site of the old paper mill upstream where the Star recently found mercury-contaminated soil.
“Mercury contamination has had a profound impact on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong (White dog) Independent Nations, and has to be properly addressed,” the ministers said.
“We are completely committed to working with all partners to identify all potentially contaminated sites, and to creating and implementing a comprehensive remediation action plan for the English-Wabigoon River (system).”
Scientists are ready to get to work on the northern Ontario watershed this spring, as soon as weather permits.
The province’s commitment follows a Star investigation that probed the impact of the poisoning and decades-long lack of action by government.
Late last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne met with Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister Sr. and environmentalist David Suzuki, who has been calling for a cleanup of the river system.
Fobister said Wynne told him the old mill site, and the river, would be cleaned. “She wants to get the ball rolling and get the work budget in place and get this thing done,” he said.
Fobister, who called Monday’s commitment “historic,” has been fighting to have the mercury-contamination of his people addressed for more than 40 years, after a Dryden paper plant dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970. The site of the plant, now under different ownership, is about 100 kilometres upstream from Grassy Narrows.
Coincidentally, Fobister, 61, is travelling to Minimata, Japan, on Tuesday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of an industrial mercury disaster that began poisoning the Japanese in the 1950s. A photograph of his brother protesting over the mercury-contamination of Grassy Narrows hangs in a museum there.
Monday’s joint statement from Murray and Zimmer said that, in light of new information of potential mercury contamination, the province is now conducting a “full and rigorous mercury contamination assessment on the entire mill site.” (A spokesperson for Domtar, the company that now owns the land, said the company has also volunteered to pay for some additional sampling by independent experts.)
Last month, the Star published a story detailing how two reporters and volunteers from environmental group 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. The spot where the Star found contaminated soil is near where a former mill worker said he was part of a crew that “haphazardly” buried drums filled with salt and mercury in the 1970s.
The province says it is taking its lead on cleanup efforts from a team of scientists, led by mercury expert John Rudd, who have been advising Grassy Narrows.