Mercury continues to poison Wabigoon River
Report calls for safe clean up of lakes and rivers after years of contamination.
TORONTO — A First Nations community in northern Ontario is again asking the province for help to clean up the mercury that’s been poisoning the Wabigoon River for nearly 50 years.
Grassy Narrows, near the Manitoba border, has dealt with mercury poisoning since the Dryden Chemical Company dumped 9,000 kilograms of it into the Wabigoon and English River systems during the 1960s.
The government ordered the residents of Grassy Narrows to stop eating fish in the 1970s, but was reluctant to attempt to clean up the mercury for fears it would make the contamination worse.
A new report says it is possible to clean local rivers and lakes of mercury, which it found still lingers in dangerous levels in sediment and in fish, and causes ongoing devastating health impacts in the community.
John Rudd, a former government scientist who examined the mercury problems in the Wabigoon in the 1980s, and helped prepare the updated report, says mercury levels remain surprisingly high.
Rudd says mercury concentrations haven’t decreased in 30 years, and he believes the government should see if there’s a new source of contamination or if the shuttered Dryden Chemical plant is still leaching it into the water.
Environment Minister Glen Murray says the government is taking the report very seriously, and if there is a safe way to clean up the mercury it will be done.
The government is not rejecting the idea of cleaning it up, but wants to make sure remediation efforts won’t stir up more of the chemical, added Murray.
“If there’s a solution there that’s feasible, then we should be looking at it and acting on it,” he said.
“I will leave it to the scientists and the ministry to go through that and look at the science and the solutions and bring recommendations forward. It’s very complex.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne told the legislature the government would look closely at the report’s recommendations.
“If there is a way to clean up that river without disturbing the mercury and making the situation worse, then obviously we want to look at that,” said Wynne.
New Democrat Sarah Campbell asked Wynne to commit to getting rid of the mercury.
“This needs to be done very carefully, but here today a report written by scientists says that it is possible to clean up the river,” said Campbell.
Rudd said the government should find out if there’s a new source of mercury that is keeping levels so high or if it’s still leaching from the old Dryden chemical plant.
“The first step should be finding where these ongoing sources (of mercury) are, and the second would be to try to introduce mediation efforts to clean it up,” he said.
“We’re more certain now that the recommendations made back in the 1980s would have a positive impact.”
Professor Brian Branfireun of the University of Western Ontario, who has been studying mercury for 25 years, urged the government to move quickly on the report.
“The recommendations of this report require further study, but let me be completely clear: no further study is required to determine if mercury remains a problem in the Wabigoon River or Clay Lake in 2016,” he said.
“What needs to be known now is where the mercury derives from and what the appropriate remediation strategies are that should be applied to solve this problem.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown said he’ll give he hopes the government gives the new report on mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows a serious study and will respond quickly.