News / Toronto

Mercury-tainted soil found upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation

Torstar reporters and volunteers from Earthroots took soil samples from behind an old paper mill which revealed significantly elevated levels of mercury.

Persistently high levels of mercury in the sediment and fish of the Wabigoon River system - which the Grassy Narrows community has long relied on - suggest there is an ongoing source of contamination.

Torstar News Service

Persistently high levels of mercury in the sediment and fish of the Wabigoon River system - which the Grassy Narrows community has long relied on - suggest there is an ongoing source of contamination.

DRYDEN, ONT.—Torstar News Service and volunteers from an environmental group have found mercury-contaminated soil upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Over several weeks this past fall, first the volunteers from Earthroots and then reporters from Torstar dug a dozen holes and took soil samples from a site behind an old paper mill, then had them analyzed by a lab. Soil from three holes contained significantly higher-than-normal levels of mercury.

“There is more than enough of a smoking gun to require a full investigation,” said Gord Miller, Ontario’s former environmental commissioner and the chair of the Earthroots group.

When presented with the findings, the province told Torstar it takes them “seriously” and will work with the current landowner to determine if more tests are needed.

Mercury contamination, a serious health risk, has plagued the indigenous community in northern Ontario for decades. Dangerous and persistently high levels of mercury in the sediment and fish in the river system suggest there is an ongoing source, but the province has denied the possibility that the site of the old mill — 100 kilometres upstream from Grassy Narrows — could be responsible.

The samples were taken from an area circled on a map by retired mill worker Kas Glowacki, who said that in 1972 he was part of a group who “haphazardly” dumped drums filled with salt and mercury into a pit behind the mill.

Test results from three holes came back showing elevated levels of mercury — up to nearly 80 times the level expected to be found in soil from that region of the province.

Two leading scientists say the results are a clear sign of industrial mercury contamination.

“It’s definitely industrial mercury,” said scientist John Rudd when presented with Torstar’s findings. “I think it is significant.”

Rudd and another mercury expert, Western University professor Brian Branfireun, say a fuller investigation including more testing would help determine whether this mercury was spilled on the ground, if it is flowing sideways through groundwater or if it is moving up from a source below.

“Until then, all these questions will remain,” said Rudd, who has studied the issue of mercury contamination in the area for decades.

Neither scientist was involved in collecting the soil samples.

The contaminated samples do not prove the existence of the alleged dump site but are enough to warrant further attention from professionals, said Miller, whose organization has acted as an adviser to and advocate for Grassy Narrows.

“We have an allegation of an improper disposal of this material. We’ve gone in and done some preliminary sampling. We found some anomalies,” Miller said, adding the province’s previous barrel search was “not good enough,” and that a “full and thorough investigation” should be done over a large area.

Late last year, Ontario’s environment minister announced the province had searched for the barrels in the summer and concluded they did not exist. The government searched a different area than that subsequently sampled by Earthroots and Torstar. The province conducted metal-detecting tests, and also said it did groundwater tests in the area, though no soil was tested.

Before that search, an Earthroots representative said he asked the province to search in a larger area, which did not happen. A request from Grassy Narrows to the pulp and paper company that now owns the site, Domtar, for access to the land to conduct a search by its own team of experts was denied, according to correspondence obtained by Torstar.

Between 1962 and 1970, the former paper mill — then owned by Reed Paper — dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River, contaminating the fish and sickening generations who consider walleye a dietary staple. Physical symptoms of mercury poisoning include loss of muscle co-ordination and tunnel vision. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable to cognitive damage, according to recent research.

Today, the walleye near Grassy Narrows are the most mercury-contaminated in the province. And recent studies conducted by Japanese experts found that 90 per cent of the people tested in Grassy Narrows and the nearby Whitedog First Nation have a symptom of mercury poisoning.

It was a government-funded scientific report commissioned by Grassy Narrows and released in May that said the persistently high levels of mercury suggest the metal is still being released into the river system. The source needs to be found and stopped, the report says.

Rudd — one of the authors of that report, who is currently working with Grassy Narrows and has received provincial funding to measure mercury contamination in the Wabigoon River system — said the entire area around the old paper processing plant should be examined because historically these types of plants have been known to be sources of contamination long after they stopped using mercury in the paper-bleaching process.

Mercury has not been used in paper production at the site in decades, and there is no suggestion that Domtar, several owners removed from Reed Paper, is responsible for any possible ongoing source of mercury.

Regardless of whether the barrels exist, Rudd said that he believes an investigation of the area would “find mercury in several locations.”

Rudd has in the past worked on two major industrial mercury remediation projects, including at the site of a former plant on the Penobscot River in Maine. A U.S. Federal Court ordered a study of mercury contamination in the area and then a cleanup plan.

Rudd worked at the Maine site for more than seven years and said there were several locations of mercury contamination, including under the factory area where mercury was used in production, dump sites where mercury-contaminated machinery was disposed of, and other “spill” areas where mercury moved around the facility.

As part of its ongoing investigation into the mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows First Nation residents, Torstar travelled on Nov. 12 to the area identified by former mill worker Glowacki because, weeks prior, volunteers from Earthroots said they’d found a spot with a significant level of mercury in the soil. Torstar wanted to take its own samples, so reporters went to the area with Earthroots volunteers.

A Domtar spokesperson did not answer several questions about the soil samples, directing Torstar to the province’s Environment Ministry. “We were surprised to learn that the Toronto Star entered and disturbed private property without permission. We ask that you respect our rights and avoid a trespass situation in the future,” said Domtar’s David Struhs, vice-president, corporate services and sustainability.

The clearing — which measures about 30 metres across — is near a public road but behind a tree line. Cars, trucks and the occasional dog walker pass along nearby Gordon Rd.

The tops of some of Domtar’s largest factory buildings can be seen about a kilometre to the east. The Wabigoon River flows just on the other side and at the foot of these buildings.

Torstar and Earthroots dug 12 holes and bagged soil samples from varying depths — generally between surface level a depth of 60 to 76 centimetres. The freezer bags containing the wet soil were sent to a lab for testing.

The soil from the three contaminated holes, tested by an independent and accredited Western University lab that specializes in mercury, showed levels of more than 1,000 parts per billion. One sample came back at nearly 4,000 parts per billion.

Citing previously published research conducted in the same area of Ontario, Branfireun said that soil mercury concentrations would normally be 100 to 200 parts per billion near the surface and about 40 to 50 parts per billion in the sands and clays underground. Branfireun holds a Canada Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability.

In the area sampled by Earthroots and Torstar, soil from six uncontaminated holes came back even lower — under 20 parts per billion.

“You don’t just show up in the middle of the bush and dig a hole and just find those mercury levels in a hole,” said Branfireun, who is the director of the accredited lab but did not participate in the testing or analysis of the samples. “There’s no way that it could ever be argued that through any natural process there could be that much mercury in the environment in that location. It’s impossible.”

Where the mercury came from is unclear.

Branfireun noted that in one of the holes where the contaminated soil was found, the mercury readings increased with depth — which suggests the mercury could possibly be coming from below or travelling horizontally. But it’s impossible to say for certain at this point.

In another hole, the readings decreased with depth. Rudd, citing his previous experience in Maine, said that mercury could have also been spilled on the ground from above.

“If it’s been spilled here or there over the years, unless the soil moves, most of it (mercury) attaches to the soil particles,” he said.

In addition, scientists told Torstar that groundwater flows can transport mercury sideways, up and down.

“A complete groundwater study needs to be done and then you can tell which way the water is flowing and how much mercury is being transported,” Rudd added.

The province’s July search for the alleged barrels relied in part on an oblique aerial photo of the mill property Torstar had initially provided to retired mill worker Glowacki. He circled the area he thought was the most likely to be the spot where the barrel dump occurred.

“We … found there are no barrels buried and there is no source,” Environment Minister Glen Murray said in the legislature in November.

The province searched to the east of Gordon Rd., a report on the search said.

Earlier in the summer, before the search, Earthroots’ David Sone said that after speaking with Glowacki about the barrels, he told the province during a conference call he thought they should search west of Gordon Rd. as well, but was ignored. Weeks later, he found a clearer aerial image of the terrain and had Glowacki circle this map, too. He circled west of Gordon Rd.

This is why in October volunteers from his organization went to that second spot circled by Glowacki to investigate, Sone said.

For Earthroots, it was relatively easy and cheap to find soil contaminated with mercury — $970 for travel expenses and equipment, including a GPS — and, Sone said, it was another frustrating example of the provincial government’s lack of political will to address the mercury problem in Grassy Narrows.

“Would the government treat toxic threats like this so negligently if they were in Toronto?” Sone asked. “Ontario has consistently looked the other way and refused to make things right, even in the face of ever mounting evidence that there is an ongoing health and environmental crisis unfolding on their watch.”

An Environment Ministry spokesperson said this week the government will again contact Glowacki to get more information on the area behind the mill.

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