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The Town Where Mercury Still Rises

The New York Times



"The government didn’t initially act on the claim in the 2015 Glowacki email that additional mercury had been stored in drums. Volunteers from the environmental organization EARTHROOTS and reporters from The Toronto Star in the fall of 2016 took a dozen samples from the site identified by Mr. Glowacki; three came back with levels of mercury up to nearly 80 times expected levels for soil in the region."


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GRASSY NARROWS, Ontario — “About 15 years ago, I started to drop things,” Steve Fobister recalled. “I couldn’t work on cars the way I used to. I couldn’t play hockey or baseball — I couldn’t hold a stick or a bat. My knees would just buckle. I started choking a lot.”

Today, Mr. Fobister, 64, needs a walker to move around his small house in the Grassy Narrows First Nation, an Ojibway reserve about an hour northeast of Kenora, Ontario. Like almost all of the 950 or so residents of Grassy Narrows, Mr. Fobister suffers from the effects of mercury poisoning. For much of our conversation, he had to support his jaw with his fingers because of the joint weakness and pain mercury can cause.

“I have memory loss,” said Mr. Fobister, a former chief of Grassy Narrows. “I have no feeling in my feet. My legs and skin feel like they’re burning. My hearing is going. I’m a walking drugstore: I take about 16 pills a day to control seizures, pain, depression.”

Mercury poisoning among the people of Grassy Narrows was first discovered in the early 1970s by Japanese researchers. From 1962 to 1970, a paper mill owned by Reed Paper, a company in nearby Dryden, dumped more than 20,000 pounds of raw mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system. Fish from those waters provided the main source of protein downstream in Grassy Narrows. By the time the contamination was discovered — and the community’s commercial fishing industry shuttered — residents had consumed dangerous quantities of fish.

The revelation caused an outcry in Canada and focused international attention on Grassy Narrows, a rural community near the Manitoba border. But despite repeated studies and calls for action — a government panel recommended specific remediation measures as early as 1983 — no efforts have been made to clean up the river.

And it remained a mystery why the mercury levels remained so persistently high, years after the initial contamination. According to the Center for Minamata Studies in Japan, which has been chronicling the disease in Grassy Narrows since the 1970s, an estimated 90 percent of the residents have symptoms of mercury poisoning — numbness in the extremities, tremors, memory loss, tunnel vision, birth defects — including those born long after the initial discovery of mercury poisoning.

“We had this kind of discussion 30 years ago,” Masanori Hanada, the current director of the center, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2014.

Mercury in pregnant women inhibits fetal brain development, which can result in reductions in cognitive and motor abilities, as well as behavioral changes, in children. But more precise research is required to explain the prevalence of symptoms in younger children. “I cannot say exactly why,” Dr. Hanada said. “Maybe there is mercury in their diet, or there is an aftereffect of 20 or 30 years. But it is not normal to find this sign in the younger generation.”

A possible answer came to light in July 2015 when a former employee of the Dryden paper mill claimed that he was part of a small crew that in 1972 dumped approximately 50 drums containing liquid mercury and salt — industrial waste from the mill — into a large pit upstream of Grassy Narrows. The employee, Kas Glowacki, now 65 and living in Alberta, sent an email to the community’s chief detailing his job as a 21-year-old, shoveling mercury into the drums.

If this account of dumping is true, it could confirm suspicions that a continuing mercury leak is one of the reasons for the toxicity that plagues the community more than 40 years after its discovery.

Sarah Bollard was born in Grassy Narrows but sent to live with a white family in suburban Toronto. She returned to the community in August with her two younger children, Gabrielle, 3, and Tristan, 5.

Now she is showing symptoms. “I have tremors,” she said, holding out her shaking hands. “And Tristan — he doesn’t really speak.”

The little boy clearly understands what’s said to him. But while his younger sister chatters away nonstop, Tristan is nearly silent, nodding yes and no to questions, pointing to what he wants. His few words are indistinct: “Nana” for “banana,” and “Fo! Fo! Fo!” to get his mother’s cellphone.

“His hearing is fine,” Ms. Bollard said. “We’ve taken him to speech pathologists everywhere we’ve lived, and nobody can figure out why he’s not talking.”

Bizarrely, however, Canadian government health agencies have never confirmed a single diagnosis of mercury poisoning. That job has been taken up by the volunteer team of Japanese researchers.

In 1975, on its first of more than half a dozen visits to Grassy Narrows, the Japanese team confirmed at least 60 cases of what has come to be known as Minamata disease after an environmental disaster in Minamata, Japan.

The government didn’t initially act on the claim in the 2015 Glowacki email that additional mercury had been stored in drums. Volunteers from the environmental organization EARTHROOTS and reporters from The Toronto Star in the fall of 2016 took a dozen samples from the site identified by Mr. Glowacki; three came back with levels of mercury up to nearly 80 times expected levels for soil in the region.

On Feb. 13, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change released a statement committing to identifying potentially contaminated sites and to carrying out a comprehensive remediation action plan for the English-Wabigoon River system, in partnership with the people of Grassy Narrows and the neighboring Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.

The provincial and federal governments have also pledged to reform the current system of compensating people for the disaster, as many band members have demanded.

In the mid-1980s, the Mercury Disability Board was set up as part of a settlement between Reed Paper and the provincial and federal governments. Its aim was to compensate people with symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning.

The two oldest daughters of April Fobister (the surname is a common one in Grassy Narrows) require round-the-clock care because of severe mercury poisoning. The two women — Betty, 25, and Melissa, 23 — have lived for 13 years in Fort Frances, Ontario, a four-hour drive from their parents. Neither can speak; Betty is wheelchair-bound and has seizures every day. Both sisters were assessed by the board; they are among the 27 percent of applicants whose claims have been approved. Both receive the maximum monthly compensation of roughly $800.

“I think everybody should be compensated,” their mother said. “I think everybody’s sick.”

Before the river was contaminated, fishing had been the reserve’s main livelihood. That work, in turn, had displaced trapping and hunting. When the mercury was discovered, the fishing industry collapsed; today Grassy Narrows has high unemployment and little in the way of its traditional economy to fall back on. Rates of teenage and child suicide are soaring, and addiction is rampant.

As a worker with the Native Alcohol Drug Abuse Program, Gabriel Fobister Jr. deals daily with these effects of poverty and disenfranchisement. At home, the effects of mercury poisoning are more direct: Like Tristan, Mr. Fobister’s 4-year-old son, Nolan, doesn’t speak much. The youngest of six, Nolan can walk and run, but he trips and falls. He’s missing a kidney and is delayed cognitively. Mr. Fobister, 40, and his wife, Sherry Ackabee, have learned to do their son’s physiotherapy at home. The disability board has awarded Nolan $600 per month in compensation, but the funds are being held in trust for the boy until he turns 18, leaving his parents with scant resources to cover the costs related to his care.

“Medically, we can’t receive services here,” Mr. Fobister said. “We need to be doing things to help him now, but we can’t.”

In the meantime, the people of Grassy Narrows continue to eat fish from the English-Wabigoon River system.

“I laugh when people are shocked to hear that we still eat the fish,” said Chrissy Swain, 37, who helped set up the community’s long-running blockade against logging and clear-cutting in the forests around the reserve. She too is noticing the symptoms of mercury poisoning: tingling fingers, numb patches on her hands, her shaking left leg and an involuntary twitching of her lip.

“But it’s our way of life,” she said. “Sometimes people run out of food and have no other choice but to eat it. Or maybe they think, ‘I already have mercury poisoning, so who cares?’ Maybe we’ve adapted to this lifestyle, so we think, ‘It’s not that bad.’ But in reality, it really is. People are sick.”


Susan Goldberg is the co-editor of “And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents and Our Unexpected Families.”

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