OP-ED: Genocide by Mercury Poisoning at Grassy Narrows

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by Peter Chow

A study published in the highly respected medical journal, The Lancet, in April 2020, entitled “Mercury exposure and premature mortality in the Grassy Narrows First Nation community: a retrospective longitudinal study” found:

1)  There was an increased risk of dying at a younger age among those with a hair Hg (mercury) measure of 15 μg/g or more.

2)  Among the deceased individuals, longevity decreased by 1 year with every 6·25 μg/g increase in hair mercury concentration.

3)  Hair mercury concentration of those who died aged younger than 60 years was 5 times higher than controls.

4)  33% of residents have lost a close friend or family member to suicide, which is five times the rate documented in other Ontario First Nations.  28% had attempted suicide – more than double the rate of other First Nations.

Grassy Narrows First Nation is a small First Nations community in northwestern Ontario.

For over 50 years, the river system that the community relies on for food and water has been contaminated with mercury as a result of industrial pollution.

This follows ongoing devastation inflicted on the lands, waters and people of Grassy Narrows by resource development and hydro dams.

In the 1920s, construction of a hydroelectric dam flooded Grassy Narrows, destroying wild rice harvesting areas and burial grounds.

Grassy Narrows’ forests have been ravaged by clearcut logging and, most alarming, the community continues to suffer the horrific effects of industrial mercury pollution

Today, 90% of Grassy Narrows community members suffer from symptoms of mercury poisoning.

There are few elders.

Once ingested, mercury never goes away. It “bioaccumulates,” meaning it passes from one generation to the next, from mother to child, through the placenta.

Mercury is highly toxic to the nervous system and brain.  It is persistent in the environment and bioaccumulates (higher concentrations in tissues of aquatic plants and animals than in water). It biomagnifies, accumulating in higher concentrations at increasingly higher levels in the food chain.

People diagnosed by a medical professional with mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows were:

  • Six times more likely to have a neuropsychological disorder.
  • Five times more likely to have stomach and intestinal problems.
  • Four times more likely to suffer from a range of problems, including hearing loss and joint pain in people over 30 years old.
  • Three times more likely to have blindness or vision problems.

In the 1960s, the Dryden Chemical Company used mercury in a process to create the materials needed to bleach paper at a paper mill, just 320 kilometers upstream from Grassy Narrows.

The Dryden Chemical Company dumped about 11 tons of mercury into the river between 1962 and 1970.

Mercury also reached the river system when, starting in the 1950s, the Ontario and federal governments built multiple hydroelectric dams on the Wabigoon-English River system. The dam reservoirs released mercury from the soil into the watercourse.

In recent years, it has been revealed that the company also buried 50 drums of mercury underground, leading to mercury readings in the soil that were 80 times natural levels and poisoning the groundwater in the area as well.

While provincial testing confirmed mercury was in the soil — and Queen’s Park promised in 2018 excavation would soon begin — the cleanup has not been done.

Steve Fobister, who died at age 66 in 2018,  was among the hardest hit by the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. A revered former chief, skilled hunter and devoted, passionate advocate for his community, before he died, he had difficulty standing and swallowing.

Even talking was a chore. It often required him to hold his lower jaw with his thumb to reduce the shaking long enough to form words.

Fobister received $250 a month, through the Mercury Disability Board.  The payment “doesn’t even meet my nutritional needs,” said Fobister. “I can’t afford anything that would give me some level of comfort. I suffer every day.”

The disability board was established in 1986 as part of a court settlement with Ontario and Canada and the two paper companies involved in the contamination.

Neither the companies, the governments nor the disability board has ever admitted that anyone at Grassy Narrows has been poisoned — only that some people “experience symptoms of Minamata disease.”

Steve Fobister is among the select few who have received any compensation at all;

Nearly 75% of the claims sent to the board are denied.

Minamata disease, is the neurological disease caused by mercury poisoning.  Signs and symptoms include ataxia, numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, damage to hearing and speech, tinnitus and liver and brain damage.

In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms.

Mercury poisoning disrupts fetal and early childhood development.

Infants and young children who’ve been exposed to high levels of mercury have delays in cognition, lower IQ, impaired fine motor skills, and speech and language development.

Minamata disease, discovered in the city of Minamata, Japan, in 1956, was caused by the release of mercury in the industrial wastewater from a chemical factory.

This highly toxic heavy metal bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish, which, when eaten by the local population, resulted in mercury poisoning.

As of March 2001, 2,265 victims had been officially recognised as having Minamata disease (1,784 of whom had died).

Successive Ontario governments have never bothered to clear out the contaminated soil behind the Dryden mill, in the exact spot where barrels of mercury, were buried.

Mercury continues to leach into the Grassy Narrows watershed.

Despite the fact that walleye (pickerel) in the area contain approximately 13-15 times the recommended levels of mercury, the First Nation group still consumes the mercury-laden fish, due to cultural tradition and socioeconomic factors.

In 2018, Grassy Narrows passed a Land Declaration that prohibits all industrial and mining activity on their lands – in part, because of concern that logging could exacerbate the crisis by releasing mercury settled in the soil.

The Land Declaration reaffirms Grassy Narrows’ right to decide whether and how resource development can occur in its territories with the powerful words:

“We assert our inherent sovereignty and our inalienable right to self-determination on our Indigenous homeland. Our land and our rights are given by the Creator and only the Creator can take them away.”

Instead, now, the Doug Ford government has been quick to consider mining claims.

With gold prices soaring, there is a new gold rush in Grassy Narrows First Nations territory, with 4,000 gold mining claims, even though suspected mercury dumps have yet to be cleaned up.

4,000 registered gold mining claims, if developed, would kill Grassy Narrows’ constitutionally enshrined rights to their lands and waters, as well as the livelihoods, culture and actual lives of its Anishinaabe people.

Gold mining has ravaged landscapes, contaminated water supplies, and contributed to the destruction of vital ecosystems.

Almost all gold is “Dirty Gold.”

There is no such thing as clean gold, unless it’s recycled or vintage. Modern industrial gold mining destroys ecosystems and creates huge amounts of toxic waste.

Due to the use of dirty practices such as open pit mining and cyanide heap leaching, mining companies generate about 20 tons of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring.

The waste, usually a gray liquid sludge, is laden with deadly cyanide and toxic heavy metals, mercury, lead and cadmium.

The use of mercury in gold mining is causing a global health and environmental crisis.

For every gram of gold produced, gold miners release about two grams of mercury into the environment;  1,000 tons of mercury into lakes, rivers and oceans world-wide each year, or 35% of global man-made mercury pollution.

The Ford government, under the slogan “Open For Business,” has been quick to consider mining claims, while the fish are still unsafe to eat and the people of Grassy Narrows are hesitant to drink the water.

Gold mining will create even more mercury pollution, adding injury to injury.

The people of Grassy Narrows continue to suffer terribly from decisions made by successive governments in Ontario, which have resulted in unmitigated ecological damage and devastating impacts to community health and well-being.

That Grassy Narrows now faces the prospect of mining in its watershed — which remains poisoned by mercury and has been extensively logged of its trees — makes a mockery of reconciliation.

The Ontario government and mining companies must respect Grassy Narrows’ Land Declaration, and abandon any claim staking and mining exploration within its declared IPCA (Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area).

Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Randy Fobister said earlier this month that “lives are at stake” as prospectors are poised to stake claims in an area that has endured terrible ecological damage for generations.

“I was dismayed that Ontario still refuses to respect the will of my people, and concerned that further industrial activity could compound the harm that has already been done by mercury.”

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