Landmark: Ontario Commits to Mercury Cleanup
Posted on: February 15, 2017
English Wabigoon River system
The English Wabigoon River system is located in Northwestern Ontario, some 400 km., or 250 miles, northwest of Thunder Bay.

“On behalf of the Province of Ontario, we are completely committed to working with all partners to identify all potentially contaminated sites, and to creating and implementing a comprehensive remediation action plan for the English Wabigoon River.”

These are the words of the Province of Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, David Zimmer, contained in a February 13th statement from the province. The statement asserts that, “Mercury contamination has had a profound impact on the people of Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.” The English Wabigoon River system is located in Northwestern Ontario, some 400 km., or 250 miles, northwest of Thunder Bay.

Attesting to the importance of the statement is the fact that the province’s Premier Kathleen Wynne, along with Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray, met personally with Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister and David Suzuki just days earlier on February 10th.

Work to clean up mercury is related to a paper mill in Dryden, Ontario which is situated on the English – Wabigoon River system. A nearby chlor-alkali production facility utilizing mercury and producing chlorine and sodium hydroxide for bleaching pulp used in paper production began operating there in the early sixties. The facility is no longer operating although production at the mill, now owned by Domtar Inc., continues. Wastewater containing mercury from the chlor-alkali plant ended up in the English – Wabigoon River system and contamination spread downstream. Mercury entered the food chain and accumulated in fish. Consumption of fish is a major pathway for transfer of mercury to humans.

Minister Zimmer’s statement lays out the provincial commitment in the following terms:

  • new information about potential mercury on the site of the Domtar mill in nearby Dryden, Ontario will be acted upon through, “a full and rigorous mercury contamination assessment on the entire mill site…to be sure unequivocally if the site is an ongoing source of mercury, and if it is…to take all measures to stop further mercury from entering the river.”
  • a two year process designed by Dr. John Rudd and funded by the province is underway to determine the extent of mercury contamination in the river and the most appropriate methods for cleanup of specific areas, including methods such as capping and enhanced natural recovery
  • regular meetings will be held with First Nations and updates will be provided to the public.

The English – Wabigoon River system is not located within the Lake Superior watershed but the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change plays an active role in addressing Lake Superior sites contaminated with mercury. At Peninsula Harbour, in the town of Marathon, Ontario, the province required Ball Packaging, a former owner of the chlor-alkali plant once located there, to contribute to cleanup of harbour mercury contamination. The provincial and federal governments were also participants in completing the $7 million “thin-layer” capping project in 2012.

This capping method placed 15 to 20 centimetres of clean sand on top of the most contaminated sediment. The project was the first of its kind to be undertaken in the Canadian Great Lakes and a video outlining project construction and produced by Environment and Climate Change Canada can be viewed here. Thin-layer capping creates clean fish habitat, stops the spread of contaminated sediment, and reduces risk to fish, fish-eating birds, mammals and people.

Another site contaminated with mercury lies within the waters of Thunder Bay Harbour. Some 350,000 cubic meters of contaminated material are located within the  confines of the harbour breakwall adjacent to the mouth of the Current River. The province, federal government and an industrial partner have cooperated to develop various options for cleanup but specific remediation plans have not been finalized.


Related February 13th article in the Toronto Star


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