Grassy Narrows chief questions delay on promised mercury testing

It has been almost four years since a retired labourer said that in 1972 he and some co-workers from the Dryden mill dumped barrels of salt and mercury into an earthen pit near the river that flows to Grassy Narrows First Nation.

After his allegation, Star reporters and volunteers from an environmental group went to this shrubby clearing behind the mill and found high mercury levels in the soil. Then, provincial scientists turned up mercury in the same soil and found there could be metal objects buried beneath.

Finally spurred to action, the province said it would soon dig up the clearing behind a tree line off Gordon Rd. to look for answers.

That was a year ago. Nothing has happened. Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle wonders why.

He said he met with Environment Minister Rod Phillips in October, and Phillips told him he would send Grassy Narrows dig plans within two weeks. None came.

“It shows their lack of commitment to resolve this issue,” Turtle said, adding he is worried the mercury in the area could be making his people sick. “It’s about time that they give us the answers. We want to know if there is a leak coming in from that area.”

Phillips, who refused to comment for this story, sent Turtle a letter Feb. 7 saying he is committed to addressing the community’s concerns but offered no dig plans.

An environment ministry spokesperson told the Star that officials are “carefully reviewing the options on how best to proceed with the assessment at the Gordon Rd. site that address health and safety and environmental considerations.”

To Scott Hamilton, an archeology professor at Lakehead University and adviser to Grassy Narrows, it seems clear the province should “chase the anomalies and see what is causing them.”

This kind of “brownfield remediation” work would involve boring holes or digging trenches to find the metal that had triggered provincial electromagnetic equipment and to sample the sediment and groundwater, Hamilton said.

One estimate pegs the cost of digging several trenches to allow a look at the metal as well as soil and groundwater sampling at roughly $100,000, including labour and equipment. It would take about four weeks.

Using a hand-held device, a provincial worker detected the underground metal anomalies after the Star and environmental group Earthroots dug several holes in the area identified by the retired labourer and had the soil tested. The holes were dug behind the riverside factory.

The soil showed mercury readings up to 80 times natural levels. When the province subsequently dug its own holes, one (labelled TS1 for the “Toronto Star,”) revealed mercury levels 240 times higher than expected natural levels in soils that were even deeper than those taken by the Star.

Mercury has not been used in paper production at the site in decades, and there is no suggestion Domtar, the current owner, is responsible for any ongoing source of mercury.

Between 1962 and 1970, 10 tonnes of mercury from the mill, then owned by Reed Paper, were dumped into the Wabigoon River, which flows to Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.

Mercury contamination, a serious health risk, has plagued the people there for decades. Dangerous and persistently high levels of mercury found in the river sediment and fish in the river system suggest there is an ongoing source.

Scientist John Rudd has said, historically, paper mills have been known to be sources of contamination long after they stopped using mercury in the paper-bleaching process.

The province’s review of the Gordon Rd. site has delayed the work timeline, the spokesperson said, adding the government will share its “approach” with Grassy Narrows and Whitedog before the end of March.

“Ontario remains committed to working with all partners, including the Grassy Narrows First Nation and other First Nation communities to identify mercury contaminated sites in the English and Wabigoon rivers and develop and implement a plan to appropriately remediate these sites,” the spokesperson said.

The Star first published Kas Glowacki’s allegations in the summer of 2016, when he recounted that, as a 21-year-old casual labourer, he spent a week on a crew that shovelled out a vat and filled about 50 drums. At the top of the vat, veins of mercury streaked the salt, Glowacki said, adding that as he and a co-worker shovelled toward the bottom, the mercury concentrations seemed to increase.

Glowacki remembered that some drums were carelessly pushed off a flatbed truck and toppled into a pit that was lined with polyurethane sheets.

In 2015, a guilt-ridden Glowacki told the Grassy Narrows community about the alleged dump of mercury-and-salt-filled barrels.

“I was amazed at the amount of mercury that was pooling around my shovel as I dumped it into the drums,” wrote Glowacki. “I am writing this letter out of guilt and to possibly share some info that you might not be aware of. I think that after so many years the monitoring may have gone by the wayside.”

There are other locations on the mill property that scientists believe could be an ongoing source of mercury to the river, including the site of the old chlor-alkali plant, where mercury was used to bleach paper.

In late 2017, the Star reported that the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone from Grassy Narrows or Whitedog.

That same year, the provincial government committed $85 million to clean up the river. The federal government has pledged to help build a mercury care home that will help some of the sickest residents.

David Bruser is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser

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