Grassy Narrows marks 50 years of mercury poison on First Nations Lands

Grassy Narrows calls on Ontario to fund permanent community run environmental monitoring station

2010 study shows mercury in fish still often above safe level

Grassy Narrows -  Fifty years ago this month, in March 1962 Dryden Chemicals began dumping an estimated 10 metric tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River, contaminating the fish which formed the subsistence and economy of three Indigenous communities Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows), Wabaseemoong (White Dog), and some members of Wabauskang who lived at Quibell.  Half a century later residents of Grassy Narrows are still grappling with the long term health, social, and economic impacts of this infamous act of environmental racism.  Mercury levels in Grassy Narrows fish have yet to return to safe levels.

“The government has allowed the logging companies to destroy our forest and give us back only disease and sickness and death,” said Judy Da Silva, a mother and community organizer in Grassy Narrows.  “We are calling on McGuinty to help us establish a permanent Grassy Narrows run environmental monitoring station so we can inform and protect our people from the ongoing damage that pollution and logging are inflicting on our bodies and on our children.”

A 2010 study by Grassy Narrows for the First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program found that 100% of fish flesh samples from the English-Wabigoon river area had mercury levels above the level at which Health Canada recommends against consumption by people who consume a lot of fish (0.2mg/kg).  25% of samples were above the legal limit for commercially sold fish (0.5 mg/kg).   (Sellers, 2010)  An earlier study found levels as high as 140% over the legal limit in a Grassy Narrows fish (Sellers, 2005).  A wild foods study conducted by Hollow Water First Nation in nearby Manitoba found that concentrations of mercury in pickerel flesh there was far lower, and ranged from 0.12 – 0.30 mg/kg (Sellers and Scott, 2006).

“Grassy Narrows requires control over our land resources for our people to recover from the devastating impacts of mercury pollution on our health, culture, and economy,” said Grassy Narrows Chief Fobister.  “Our people have suffered far too long from harmful decisions imposed on our people against our will.”

An independent report by world renowned Japanese mercury expert Dr. Harada found that 79% of Grassy Narrows residents tested in 2002 and 2004 had Minamata Disease (MD), MD with complications, or possible MD (Harada et. Al, 2005).  Minamata Disease, a term for mercury poisoning, is named after the Japanese town of Minamata where Dr. Harada first exposed industrial mercury poisoning in the 1960’s.

This conflicts with Health Canada’s assertion from the 1990’s that 0% of Grassy Narrows patients examined were at risk due to the levels of mercury in their system, leading them to stop testing Grassy Narrows residents for mercury.  A report funded by Health Canada wrote that “there should be minimal concern for Hg in these two communities… the communities are encouraged to promote the use [of] local fish resources.”  (Chan, 2003)

And yet, in 2007 an independent Grassy Narrows fisherman was charged and pled guilty in a Kenora court to one count of unlawfully selling fish tainted by mercury contamination, contrary to the Ontario Fish Inspection Act.  MNR conservation officers from the Kenora District discovered the nets set in Grassy Narrows Lake, near the community, on Sept. 4, 2005.  Forensic tests on the fish, done at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg, revealed mercury levels of 1.0 parts per million, twice the acceptable level of 0.5 parts per million (Kenora Daily Miner, 2007).  320 pounds of fish from Grassy Narrows Lake were seized in the incident and the retailer was ordered to dispose of the fish, which was later dumped at the Kenora waste transfer station.

“We know too well the tragic consequences of failing to listen when the people of Grassy Narrows say no to destructive industry on their lands,” said David Sone of the environmental group Earthroots.  “It is time for Ontario to stop repeating the mistakes of the past and to respect Grassy Narrows’ vision for the the land they always have used and cared for.  We cannot allow the Province to be complicit in the poisoning of even one more Grassy Narrow child.”

Starting in March 1962 Dryden Chemicals Limited, a subsidiary of Reed Paper limited, operated a cathode chlor-alkali plant that produced chlorine and sodium hydroxide for the bleaching of paper (Shkynik, 1985). The mercury chlor-alkali plant was demolished in 1971 (EBR Registry Number:   011-3797, 2011).

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