Poisoning of Canada’s Grassy Narrows First Nation

From ToxicLeaks

Reed Paper Company background[edit | edit source]

In Canada’s Ontario province, the Domtar Corporation today operates Dryden Mill, one of 13 paper and pulp properties across Canada and the United States. Domtar acquired the property in 2007, but the mill on the Wabigoon River has existed since 1911. It currently has an annual pulp production capacity of 327,000 tons on one pulp line, and the company claims sustainable forestry and timber management practices that limit adverse affects to the ecosystem and community, including the nearby Grassy Narrows First Nation. Environmental activists charge that the industry is destroying indigenous lives.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when the mill was owned by a British multinational entity and operated as Reed Paper Company, mercury and other chemical byproducts from the paper bleaching process were dumped directly into the river, upstream from the Grassy Narrows community.

Despite compensation from the paper company and Canadian government, and some cleanup efforts, the land and water are still toxic. Scientists who investigated the facility in 2017 report “ongoing, legacy pollution from mercury.” They include John Rudd, a Wabigoon River expert who says the findings confirm a hidden source of mercury still leaching into the river, and lead academic investigator Brian Branfireun at Western University in Ontario, who describes the spill as a textbook example of point-source contamination. Mercury in the water and soil, just 100 kilometers upstream from the indigenous First Nation community, continues to have consequences a full 45 years now after it was discovered.

Mercury contamination history[edit | edit source]

The Grassy Narrows community, called Asubpeeschoseewagong in its native First Nation language, has a registered population of 1,500 people, including 950 who live on the reservation and along the English-Wabigoon river system. They are an aboriginal people who relied on traditional fishing, hunting and other indigenous practices for their livelihood. As with many First Nation peoples, their lives are marked by a history of broken treaties, and land encroachment that includes multinational logging and timber industry impacts to the boreal forests that the government permits without the Grassy Nations consent.

That history also includes the 1950s-era damming of the English River to operate a hydroelectric facility, which flooded sacred burial grounds, destroyed wild rice beds and other agriculture, and drowned fur animals the Grassy Nations community needed for trapping and indigenous use. Worse yet, between 1962 and 1970, the old mill owners dumped 10 tons of mercury into the Wabigoon waters. Beginning in 1972, after fish kills devastated the community’s economy and mercury poisoning afflicted its people, the community learned the mercury had been dumped upstream from their waters – a poisoning that continues to this day. A retired Dryden Mill worker attests that in 1972, he personally dumped mercury and other toxins at the site. He assisted with a November 2016 investigation by the Toronto Star and the Earthroots environmental group that also confirms toxic mercury remains at the site, where the walleye fish, a Grassy Nations dietary staple, still contains the highest level of mercury contamination in the entire Canadian province. Recent studies by Japanese researchers in 2014 found exceptionally high levels of mercury toxicity in the community, including both tribal elders and Grassy Nations youth – again suggesting that the poisoning of a half-century ago is still effecting second and third generations.

The Japanese scientists included Masanori Hanada, the co-founder of the Open Research Centre for Minamata Studies in Japan. They are experts in mercury poisoning, which is the cause of Minamata disease, and claim that since 2004 they have communicated important findings to Canadian federal and local government officials but have yet to see their results met with a meaningful response or strategy.

Minamata disease[edit | edit source]

Minamata disease is also known as methylmercury poisoning, and was first discovered in Japan in 1956. That’s when illnesses were linked to the estimated 200 to 600 tons of mercury dumped into the water of the Minamata region by a Chisso Corporation chemical factory disposing of its industrial waste.

Symptoms include ataxia, which is a coordination problem with balance and stability when walking or moving; general muscle weakness, and a numbness in extremities including the hands and feet. The disease also may cause seizures and sensory damage to vision, hearing and speech. Severe cases of mercury poisoning may cause paralysis, coma and death within weeks of the onset of symptoms.

Minamata disease also may occur as a congenital condition. Dietary consumption of toxic mercury in fish, shellfish, soil-contaminated crops and other sources passes from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

The disease is so inextricably linked to industrial mercury poisoning that it is sometimes called Chisso Minamata disease – among the only potentially fatal diseases to actually bear the name of the company that was responsible for it. The company continued to dump mercury-tainted waste into the water until 1968, resulting in a total of 30 years of contamination, including 12 years after the source was identified. Chisso had paid out USD$86 million by 2004, when it was at last ordered to clean up the mercury mess.

Poisoning a new generation[edit | edit source]

In Canada, a similar scenario plays out with respect to environmental and human health. The Mercury Disability Board has approved $20 million in often small monthly payments to more than 300 people since it was established in 1985. Yet the Japanese experts say far more members of the Grassy Narrows and similarly affected Whitedog communities have been affected by mercury levels that, respectively, were three and seven times above the Health Canada mercury limit when they first started studying the problem in 1975. Hanada said 74 percent of the people his team saw with active or past Minamata symptoms in 2011 were not receiving any compensation for the catastrophic toxic mercury exposure.

In September 2016, Hanada and his team found that more than 90 per cent of the population in the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations show signs of mercury poisoning. It appears directly linked to ongoing leaching into the water and soil rather than the historic dumping of mercury at the Dryden Mill. The Earthroots organization in Canada has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all the way down to local officials to act at last on the problem – one that corporations have avoided paying for.

Companies avoid liability[edit | edit source]

In 2011, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment secured a remediation order against industry giant Weyerhaeuser and the Resolute companies. Both American companies had been previous owners of the mill, which has changed hands several times in the intervening decades. The Ontario Supreme Court overturned the decision in July 2016 because of a 1979 agreement that protected corporate interests in order to facilitate the sale of the paper mill, even as the First Nations communities were suing the mill.

In 1979, protection from future environmental liability was offered to Reed Paper, and the-then current mill owner Great Lakes Paper, in part because "enabling the modernization and upgrading of the plant in the community of Dryden was deemed to be in the public interest," according to court documents. That agreement also survived a 1985 challenge because the companies agreed to help fund what was then a USD$17 million compensation package for the First Nations people.

As is often the case when corporations face expensive consequences for their environmental practices, these intermediate mill owners separated the environmental-liability site from their main operations and ultimately left it abandoned during a 2009 bankruptcy filing. By then, it was a Domtar property, although that acquisition reflected Weyerhaeuser’s fine-paper interests through a corporate merger.

With renewed attention to mercury toxicity, and with evidence of ongoing leaks spurring calls from the environment minister and others for a full investigation and long-awaited remedy, Domtar has agreed to pay for sampling by “independent experts.” Meanwhile, the mercury is still poisoning the Wabigoon.

Proposed remediation and the future[edit | edit source]

A comprehensive May 2016 report points to future strategies while offering a stark assessment of the present. Fifty-seven years after the first mercury release, concentrations in sediment sands and fish remain highly elevated – and as noted earlier, all evidence points to an ongoing leak. Yet the Canadian government’s plan is not working, the authors of the FreeGrassy organization’s report said.

The report details steps that would reduce the current mercury levels in fish to 0.2 ppm and make it safe again for women of child-bearing age and children to eat about twice a week. The report prioritizes the remediation of Clay Lake, which is fed by the Wabigoon River, for both its community and ecosystem impact because cleaning up this key lake will likely improve conditions for downstream lakes as well.

However, Simon Fobister, the Grassy Narrows tribal chief, remains understandably skeptical as Canadian officials and corporations appear to dodge the financial responsibilities. In March 2017, Fobister issued a statement responding to Trudeau’s claim that the Dryden Mill cleanup remains a provincial issue, and not that of the Canadian federal government – despite the observation of legal experts that Canada can do so if it chooses. It is not a matter of political authority, but rather of political priority and political will.

Still Fobister asks: “How can Trudeau say that he is reconciling with First Nations while passing the buck on cleaning up an ongoing toxic leak that has plagued our health and undermined our culture for fifty years?”