Northern Ontario paper mill waste worsens mercury pollution in river near Grassy Narrows

Northern Ontario paper mill waste worsens mercury pollution in river near Grassy Narrows

Industrial discharges from a paper mill in northern Ontario are exacerbating mercury pollution in a river system near a First Nation that has been plagued by mercury poisoning for decades, a new study suggests.

While wastewater from the Dryden, Ontario, factory does not contain mercury, the sulfate and organic matter it contains contributes to the high production of methylmercury in the Wabigoon River, Western University researchers said Thursday.

Levels of methylmercury (the most toxic form of mercury) in the river’s fish may be twice what they would be without the mill discharge, they said.

“Current mill operations are worsening the methylmercury pollution problem in the Wabigoon River and delaying the recovery of mercury pollution and fish in that system,” said Brian Branfireun, who led the research team.

The mill is upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, a community of fewer than 1,000 people near Ontario’s border with Manitoba.

The community’s water was contaminated when the factory dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s. The factory stopped using mercury in its industrial process in the 1970s, but mercury levels downstream of the plant have not decreased significantly since the 1980s.

One study estimated that 90 percent of the Grassy Narrows population suffers from some degree of mercury poisoning. The heavy metal can be passed from mothers to the babies they carry, making it a problem that spans generations.

Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle said the province assured them it was making sure the wastewater was safe, and it’s “heartbreaking” to learn that wasn’t the case.

“This has worsened our suffering and it has to stop. We need justice, not more poisoning,” he said in an email.

“The government allowed this mess to be created and now must fix it. The pollution must stop and the river must be cleaned up. We need fair compensation for everyone in Grassy Narrows so we can restore our well-being and our way of life.” life.”

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks said it will continue to work with the factory owner and Indigenous communities affected by mercury contamination in the area.

The ministry’s technical experts are reviewing the report and plan to meet with Branfireun and indigenous communities next week, Gary Wheeler said in an email.

Additionally, the report will be shared with a team of experts tasked with developing a conceptual site model for the river system and will be incorporated into that team’s final report, he said.

Dryden Fiber Canada, which took possession of the factory last August, said it cares “deeply” about the issue but needs to review the report before commenting further.

The factory said it received a copy Thursday afternoon, but investigators said they provided the document to the factory owners, the government and other English and Wabigoon River First Nations last week.

Branfireun said the river system is not recovering and still has the highest level of mercury in fish in Ontario.

“We are pointing to this as an explanation for why mercury (levels) in fish remain high,” he said.

If sulfates and organic matter going into the river are reduced, there could be a rapid decrease in mercury concentrations in fish, although that will not solve existing pollution in the environment, he said.

“There is evidence from other experiments that have been done in North America that that timeline could be on the order of years, as opposed to decades of recovery if we’re talking about a more traditional remediation strategy, which will ultimately have to be imminent. also he said.

The study was commissioned by Grassy Narrows First Nation and its results were released Thursday “due to the urgency of the situation,” Branfireun said.

“Every minute there is additional discharge of sulfate and organic matter into this river, more methylmercury is formed.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2024.