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Clean-up of Mercury at Grassy Narrows First Nation Reserve


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February 16, 2017 by John Nicholson

The Ontario government recently committed to cleaning up mercury contamination at this is effecting the residents of the Grassy Narrows First Nation Reserve.  The residents have been plagued with mercury poisoning for the past 50 years.

The source of the mercury contamination is a paper mill near Dryden, Ontario.  The mill dumped approximately 9,000 kilograms of mercury in the Wabigoon and English Rivers in the 1960’s.  The site of the paper mill, now under the ownership of Domtar, is about 100 kilometres upstream from the Grassy Narrows Reserve.

Recent testing of fish and river sediments have found that the concentration of mercury in the ecosystem has not decreased in the past 30 years and are still at dangerous levels.  According to researchers, more than 90 percent of the residents of the Grassy Narrows Reserve and the nearby Wabaseemoong First Nation Reserve show signs of mercury poisoning.

Soil Sampling for Mercury upstream of Grassy Narrows Reserve (Photo Credit: David Bruser/Toronto Star)

“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,” Ontario Environment Minister Glen Murray and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer said in a statement.  “We need to be sure unequivocally if the site is an ongoing source of mercury, and if it is, then we need to work with partners to take all measures to stop further mercury from entering the river.”

Judy Da Silva, the environmental health co-ordinator for Grassy Narrows and a member of its mercury working group, was skeptical but hopeful that the new commitment would lead to action.  “To me, when I hear full assessment of the entire mill site and committing to identify and remediation plans, to me it all sounds like words…I’m hoping I’ll live to see the day it is cleaned up”, she said.

As far back as 1984 there was talk by the Ontario government to clean up the mercury contamination in the River System upstream of Grassy Narrows.  However, it was decided to allow for natural attenuation of the mercury contamination. 

The cost of cleaning up the mercury contamination from the river system is unknown.  Rough estimates by some put it at $7 million per year for several years.  Part of the remediation plan would be fully assess the extent of the contamination, develop a remediation plan, and implement it.

John Rudd, an expert in mercury is leading the scientific investigation on the extent of mercury contamination.  He is hopeful that the extent of the contamination can be determined over the spring and summer and that remediation can begin in 2018.

Map of Grassy Narrows Area (Credit: TVO)


John Nicholson

John Nicholson

John is a cleantech and environmental expert with over 25 years of experience. He is a registered professional engineer and has a Masters degree in environmental engineering.
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