The province is investigating an allegation of another mercury dump site near the riverside paper mill upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, the Star has learned.
The mill, now owned by Domtar, got the tip by phone on May 10 from a former employee of a previous mill owner. The tipster alleged that decades ago mercury was dumped in barrels and buried in a plastic-lined pit. He said he helped prepare the alleged dumping site.
When Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle got the news, he said, “I was upset, and scared for my people who eat the fish from the river that flows by that site.”
The alleged dump site is in a grassy clearing surrounded by a stand of jackpine trees off Johnston Road. Environment Ministry staff went to the site with the former employee but “further research” is needed, a spokesperson said.
The site is distinct, and about a kilometre north, from the one described by Kas Glowacki, a retired casual mill labourer who came forward out of “guilt” in 2015. He said that in 1972 he was part of a crew that dumped 50 drums of salt and mercury. Glowacki had told the Star that some drums had been carelessly pushed off a flatbed truck and toppled into a pit that was lined with polyurethane sheets.
The Star and environmental group Earthroots went to the Glowacki site west of Gordon Road, dug holes and had the soil tested, and in early 2017 found mercury readings in the soil that were up to 80 times natural levels. The province then conducted tests in the area, confirmed mercury was in the soil and with an electromagnetic surveying device detected possibly buried metal. It said in the winter of 2018 that excavation would begin that spring.
Ontario has yet to excavate to confirm the dump site and see how much mercury is there and if it is getting into groundwater that flows to the river.
“The government says that they consider this new report of mercury dumping to be credible. But we are still waiting for basic answers about the last report of dumping,” Turtle said. “This is totally unacceptable. It has been four years since Glowacki came forward.”
During the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations. The potent neurotoxin contaminated the river’s fish and poisoned the people who ate them. The community’s residents developed tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing, tunnel vision and lost muscle co-ordination. Scientists strongly suspect that old mercury still contaminates the mill site and pollutes the river.
Both alleged dump sites are on company property. There is no suggestion that Domtar, a pulp manufacturer several owners removed from Reed Paper, is responsible for any source of mercury.
An Environment Ministry spokesperson said it “takes the concerns expressed by the former employees very seriously and recognizes the importance of determining if there are buried barrels of mercury at the Dryden industrial site. … The ministry is considering the best approach to further investigate reports of buried barrels.”
The second tip alleges the mercury and concrete mix was placed into 45-gallon drums and their lids bolted closed before going in a pit. “The individual could not place an exact year other than late ’60s, early ’70s,” reads a July 31 email from a senior Environment Ministry staffer to Turtle and other Grassy Narrows and provincial officials.
Over the past three years, the Star and scientists have revealed that fish near Grassy Narrows remain the most contaminated in the province, that there are mercury-contaminated soil and river sediments at or near the site of the old mill, and that the provincial government knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under that site and never told anyone in Grassy Narrows or Whitedog.
Scientists have determined there are two likely sources of the mercury found in the riverbed:
The first is legacy mercury that has leaked from the mill property into the river — a scenario found at other North American industrial sites that once used mercury in production processes. The factory buildings that used mercury were called chlor-alkali plants.
The second likely source is mercury that was initially dumped in the river in the 1960s but that could have been trapped or concentrated in the river banks or sediment beds outside the plant and then released downstream over time during high flows or other disturbances.
Amid the mounting evidence that old mercury still impacts the area, Turtle and others from Grassy Narrows are impatient with progress on the federal government’s commitment to help build and operate a new care home that will help the sickest of those impacted by the industrial mercury poisoning.
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan, now up for re-election as MP for St. John’s South—Mount Pearl in Newfoundland and Labrador, has said the government is committed to building the home.
Turtle has said a funding agreement offer from Ottawa is inadequate and, despite an assurance that any agreement would be “for keeps,” allows the government to walk away from the deal for any reason with 60 days’ notice. Turtle has not signed it.
The government said the offer’s language was standard contractual wording and not a reflection of Indigenous Services’ record on following through on its promises.
Get more stories like this one in your inbox
Take your time with the Star’s biggest and best features with our Weekend Long Reads newsletter.
Meanwhile, new details have emerged about the rift between Grassy Narrows and O’Regan. When the minister visited the reserve in May to talk about a care home deal, O’Regan and an aide met in Turtle’s office with the chief, a local MP, a lawyer representing Grassy and the community’s project manager, Robert Williamson.
Williamson said that during this meeting, when Grassy Narrows officials grew concerned that their vision for the home did not match O’Regan’s, Turtle pulled out a copy of former minister Jane Philpott’s 2017 commitment letter to the First Nation’s former chief. In the letter, Philpott committed to funding a feasibility study of a care home “as well as the construction and operation … once the design work and programming is ready.”
Williamson said O’Regan took the letter, tossed it aside and called it “crap.” O’Regan allegedly said Philpott should not have done this.
In response to Williamson’s account, the minister’s office said Philpott’s general commitment contained no specific design or operation details “that needed to be worked out in order to begin the construction.”
“His comments reiterated that his purpose for the trip was to finalize these details with the community, so that funding could flow quickly, and construction on the facility could commence,” a spokesperson said.
As a reflection of the minister’s commitment to get this home built, his office said that Indigenous Services has offered to bring in a “third party adviser” to help move the project along.
When Glowacki first came forward in 2015, before the Star and Earthroots and subsequent government tests found mercury in the soil, an email written by Glowacki went to the Grassy Narrows chief at the time, and he passed it along to the Environment Ministry.
The tip was initially ignored. A ministry staffer assured community leadership in an email that “the Dryden pulp mill is not a source of mercury.” No one at the ministry followed up with Glowacki to ask more questions.
Asked what if any role Domtar has in investigating the area identified by the second tipster, a company spokesperson said: “Domtar thinks it is important for the government to survey the area identified by the second tipster. … The company has told the (ministry) that we stand ready to provide the government access to the property to conduct an investigation as may be required. As of today, Domtar has not received any direction from the (ministry) in this regard.
“If there are others who have information about historical contamination on or around the property, we encourage them to come forward and share what they know with the (ministry).”
The company spokesperson also said the Environment Ministry recently sampled the Wabigoon River, which runs past the mill toward Grassy Narrows, and results show that the “overwhelming, ongoing source” of mercury in the river is from contaminated sediments downstream of Dryden.
When asked about this data, the province said the work is ongoing: “Preliminary results suggest that mercury remains elevated in sediment and water. Work is also being undertaken to characterize potential movement of mercury in the vicinity of the mill site. To fully understand the sources, movement and fate of mercury to the river system a full synthesis of all of the data collected to date is required.”
As part of its ongoing probe of the second alleged dump site, the ministry said it reviewed “information from the one well located at this site” that was sampled in December 2017 and results were “below the lab detection limit for mercury.”
Turtle hopes both alleged dump sites are excavated soon.
“With each month it becomes more clear that our fears are real and that the government does not have this mercury problem under control,” he said.