TORONTO—Two Ontario cabinet ministers will head to the Grassy Narrows First Nation next week to talk about how to deal with mercury contamination that has plagued the remote northwestern community for decades.
Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation minister David Zimmer said he and Environment minister Glen Murray, along with technical experts, will sit down with Grassy Narrows leaders to discuss various reports about the mercury and how to clean it up.
“There’s been stories in the media, and there are reports floating around, and I think it’s time for Minister Murray and I, and our technical people and the First Nations’ technical people, to sit down and try to work through to see just what the situation is,” Zimmer said Tuesday.
The government wants to find out any new information from the community and sort out the different reports on the mercury contamination before deciding what it can do to help, added Zimmer.
“Once we’ve determined what reports are on the table, and what reports perhaps should be on the table, then we’ll figure out a course of action,” he said.
“This is a first step in getting to the bottom of this.”
Some Grassy Narrows residents suffered mercury poisoning since the Dryden Chemical Co. dumped 9,000 kg of it into the Wabigoon and English River systems during the 1960s.
The government closed the local fishery that formed the basis of the Grassy Narrows economy, but some residents ignored the order to stop eating the fish.
Chief Simon Fobister Sr. said he wants an investigation into another possible source of contamination after a former worker at the Dryden mill wrote the government saying he had buried more than 50 barrels of mercury and salt in a pit in 1972.
Murray said the environment ministry took some samples from the area June 6 in response to the claim about the barrels of mercury—the results are still pending—but officials still haven’t located where they were buried.
“That’s the point of the inspections right now,” said Murray.
“So the ministry has been told to be very, very thorough, to look at other possible locations for this on-site, and continue more intensive testing,” he noted.
“As soon as that is completed, we should have the answer to that question.”
A recent report concluded there may be an ongoing source of contamination because the mercury levels haven’t fallen since the 1970s as scientists expected they would.
John Rudd, a former government scientist who examined the mercury problems in the Wabigoon in the 1980s, and helped prepare the updated report, called for an investigation to see if there’s a new source of contamination or if the shuttered chemical plant still is leaching it into the water.
The province found Rudd’s report “very helpful” and takes it seriously, said Murray.
“The report was a good analysis of what needs to be done next, and it argues that a major field study would have to be done to look at where the sediment is and also to look to see if there are any secondary leaks.
“The study actually looks at whether certain types of remediation would work in certain areas, and looks at whether by disturbing it you could make the situation worse,” he added.
The government is worried any action to remove the mercury could stir up more of the chemical in the sediment of lakes and rivers.
NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns said the government knows what needs to be done in Grassy Narrows, but for years ignored the mercury poisoning and the health problems it caused.
“They don’t need to go on a sightseeing trip,” said Tabuns. “They need to send up scientists.
“They need to determine if there are any other leaking sources and then need to clean it up as has been recommended,” he stressed.