Community and scientists agree: Ontario must clean up Grassy Narrows immediately

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Photo: Steph Wechsler

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The Ontario government announced it would commit $300,000 to monitoring mercury levels in the English-Wabigoon River system after ministers David Zimmer and Glen Murray visited Grassy Narrows First Nation on Monday.

The announcement comes after a Toronto Star investigation on June 20 exposed that the Ontario government had ignored a former mill labourer's confession about the existence of a previously undetected mercury disposal site. And, on June 23, when six solidarity protesters were arrested after tipping over a barrel of thick, grey sludge in front of the Ontario legislature to protest the government's inaction on the issue and demand immediate remediation.

The Grassy Narrows First Nation community continues to call for immediate remediation of the river system, which has been contaminated since 1962 when the old Dryden mill dumped 10 tons of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, into the river. Many Grassy Narrows members have suffered from Minamata Disease, a neurological condition caused by mercury poisoning.

Chrissy Swain, a Grassy Narrows band member, told rabble in a telephone interview that despite the government's agreement to fund monitoring of the river, she is "feeling mixed up about [the news]."

While the government's announcement brings "a little bit of hope," Swain is hesitant to celebrate. "[The government] has said things in the past, and it just seems like we always end up just waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing ever really happens," Swain told rabble.

River can, and should, be cleaned up

Faisal Moola, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Forestry and Director General of the David Suzuki Foundation for Ontario and Northern Canada, spoke to rabble in a telephone interview about the significance and limitations of the government's announcement.

Moola told rabble that Ontario's $300,000 budget will cover one year of data collection, or the monitoring of mercury and methylmercury levels in Grassy Narrows, which will provide scientists with a "much better picture of the baseline of mercury contamination" and will help "identify the hotspots of mercury poisoning" in the region.

The Ontario government has also committed to involving members from the Grassy Narrows community in the monitoring by training members to collect data with scientists. "This is exactly how participatory community-oriented science needs to happen," Moola told rabble. "We need to make sure the [Grassy Narrows First Nation] aren't studied as if they're some subject in a lab."

While Moola considers this commitment to be "valuable" and "progressive," he explained that the money will not cover the cleanup of the river system, which is the top priority for scientists and the Grassy Narrows community.

During a press conference last Tuesday, Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister reiterated the community's demand for an immediate cleanup of the river system. "No more fancy talk," Fobister said. "No more studies. We just want [the river] cleaned up."

Dr. John Rudd, Reed Harris, and Dr. Patricia Sellers were commissioned by the Ontario government and Grassy Narrows First Nation to give expert advice on remediation options for the river system.

The 61-page report they released in late March recommended that the Ontario government "prioritize" remediation and begin a long-term monitoring project, but one that would "follow the success of remediation as it proceeds."

The team concluded that enhanced remediation would be the most effective and least damaging method of cleaning the river. Enhanced remediation involves releasing clean sediment into the water column to dilute the concentration of mercury.

Remediation dependent on political will

"The government still has not made an unambiguous, explicit commitment to the community that it will clean up the river. We have no plan, we have no timelines, we have no budget that been allocated to what I would say is the highest priority, which is to clean up the river of the toxins that are actually making people sick," Moola told rabble.

Wynne has said she is "deadly serious" about cleaning up the river, but that she "[is] not going to go ahead unless we're sure that we're not going to do more damage."

Moola expressed concern over Wynne's insinuation that remediation might cause more damage because scientists are conflicted over which remediation method to use to clean up the river.

"I think we have to be really careful not to get distracted by the question about how the remediation should be done, because scientists are very clear: remediation has to be done, and the report which the Ontario government has funded calls for enhanced remediation," Moola said.

Could the enhanced remediation process start immediately? "Yes," said Moola.  

Whether the river will be cleaned up comes down to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario government's political will, Moola told rabble.

The hasty response to the solidarity action and delayed action on cleaning up the river left many with mixed feelings. "It was a really strong message and it showed how fast they reacted to Queen's Park," Swain told rabble.

"Meanwhile we've been sitting in 10 tons of mercury for 40 years. Just shows how I guess we're not that important."

Premier Kathleen Wynne was not immediately available for comment.


Sophia Reuss is a Montreal-based writer, editor, and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal. Sophia is rabble's current news intern.

Photo: Steph Wechsler

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