Written by Prabhnoor Kaur Toor, Staff Writer

In the heart of Northwestern Ontario lies Grassy Narrows, a resilient First Nation reserve known as Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek. Spanning just over 41 square kilometers, this tight-knit community of 1,594 registered members, 971 of whom call the reserve home as of 2019, has its roots embedded in the English River Indian Reserve 21. Located approximately 55 kilometers northeast of Kenora, this community proudly upholds its status as a signatory to Treaty 3, a testament to their enduring connection with the land.

Yet, beneath the serene surface of Grassy Narrows lies a profound and enduring environmental challenge that has gripped the community for decades. Nearly 90 percent of its residents bear the heavy burden of mercury poisoning, a tragic legacy stemming from the toxic discharge of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River system between 1962 and 1970, attributed to Dryden Chemicals Ltd. This contamination has unleashed devastating and ongoing consequences, casting a long shadow not only over the Grassy Narrows community but also over their neighbors, the White Dog First Nation.

Meanwhile, in the picturesque landscapes of Ontario, the former uranium mining town of Elliot Lake silently wrestles with the enduring legacy of a different form of contamination. Once bustling with economic activity during the 1960s uranium mining boom, this community experienced an exodus of residents due to economic shifts in the early 1990s, as they sought new horizons.

This scenic town has witnessed the consequences of decades of radiation exposure and contamination, primarily a result of uranium mining. What sets Elliot Lake apart is the scarcity of comprehensive research into the potential health impacts of this exposure. The backdrop of this environmental challenge reveals a community navigating a path marked by resilience and environmental restoration, all while underscoring the pressing need to prioritize public and environmental health over short-term economic gains.

Grassy Narrows First Nation vs. Mercury Contamination

The contamination that plagues Grassy Narrows was primarily the consequence of industrial activities carried out by Dryden Chemicals Ltd., a company located about 130 kilometers upstream from the Grassy Narrows reserve. Dryden Chemicals was engaged in chlor-alkali manufacturing, a process that employed mercury to produce chlorine, a chemical vital for paper bleaching. Tragically, this mercury-based process led to the release of significant quantities of the toxic metal into the environment.

Mercury, a highly toxic heavy metal notorious for its devastating effects on the environment and human health, was the primary contaminant unleashed into the environment. Over the course of Dryden Chemicals’ operations, an astonishing 9,000 kilograms of untreated mercury poured into the English-Wabigoon River system. This reckless pollution had catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem and the Grassy Narrows community.

The contamination unfolded during the years between 1962 and 1970 when Dryden Chemicals was in full operational swing. Notably, it is essential to recognize that mercury pollution persisted even after 1970 due to airborne emissions resulting from the manufacturing processes. These airborne contaminants lingered until 1975 when the company shifted to cleaner manufacturing practices.

The contamination primarily unfolded within the English-Wabigoon River system, a vital resource for the Grassy Narrows First Nation that traversed their traditional territory. The river system provided sustenance through fishing and was deeply interwoven with their way of life.

The contamination can be attributed to the industrial processes employed by Dryden Chemicals Ltd. In their pursuit of producing chlorine for the paper bleaching industry, they utilized mercury, unaware of the catastrophic repercussions of their actions. At that time, the detrimental effects of mercury emissions were not fully understood or acknowledged, leading to severe and lasting environmental and health consequences for the Grassy Narrows community.

Addressing the Environmental and Health Impacts of Mercury Contamination

The Ontario government’s recent commitment of $85 million for cleaning up the 1960s mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon river system, resulting from a paper mill, is a significant step forward. However, concerns remain about the potential vulnerability to changes in government priorities and addressing the ongoing source of contamination.

The Grassy Narrows First Nation community has secured a substantial $68.9 million in federal government funding aimed at the construction of a vital facility known as the Mercury Care Home. This facility is dedicated to offering specialized care to individuals profoundly affected by the longstanding and pervasive issue of mercury contamination in the region. Astonishingly, nearly 90% of the Grassy Narrows population exhibits symptoms of mercury poisoning, enduring a spectrum of neurological problems that significantly impact their well-being.

The eagerly anticipated Mercury Care Home is on track to open its doors in 2023, providing crucial in-patient and outpatient services for those grappling with the devastating effects of mercury poisoning. While this funding represents a significant milestone in addressing the long-standing crisis, the Grassy Narrows community remains unwavering in their advocacy for broader issues such as fair compensation, access to quality healthcare, and comprehensive environmental remediation to address the enduring consequences of mercury contamination.

Elliot Lake vs. Uranium Contamination

The saga of contamination in Elliot Lake finds its origins in uranium mining. This intricate process involved extracting uranium ore from underground mines, followed by processing in specialized mills. It all began with the physical extraction of uranium ore, which underwent crushing and chemical treatment to isolate uranium from the surrounding rock. While it yielded a valuable product, it simultaneously generated significant radioactive waste, primarily in the form of tailings.

Elliot Lake, situated in Ontario, Canada, became synonymous with uranium mining, a direct response to the high demand for fissile material during the U.S. nuclear weapons program. The process of extracting uranium enriched the industry, but it came at the cost of producing radioactive waste and tailings that demanded responsible management.

The uranium mining boom in Elliot Lake commenced in 1954 when uranium ore deposits were discovered. This marked the birth of an era characterized by mining and milling activities. Uranium mining in Elliot Lake reached its zenith during the 1960s but experienced cycles of growth and decline in subsequent years. Ultimately, the mining operations ceased in 1996, leaving behind a legacy of contamination.

Aerial View Rio Algom Quirke Tailings (1999)

Elliot Lake, within the Ontario landscape, stood at the epicenter of uranium mining activities. Mines, processing facilities, and associated infrastructure were scattered throughout the city. Radioactive waste, in the form of tailings, found its designated repositories behind retaining dams and berms, presenting a silent yet persistent threat.

The driving force behind the rapid expansion of uranium mining in Elliot Lake was the pressing demand for uranium during the height of the U.S. nuclear weapons program. This critical need propelled the mining industry’s growth, yet this growth also ignited concerns about the health and environmental impacts associated with mining activities.

Remediation Efforts

In Elliot Lake, the community is demanding swift action from both the federal government and mining giant BHP to address radioactive waste discovered on their properties. This waste, used as fill material during the 1960s, originated from now-closed uranium mines and poses an immediate threat to their well-being. Despite their appeals to the federal Ministry of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and BHP, no response has been forthcoming.

Expert tests have unveiled a grim reality, with residents exposed to radiation levels well above permissible limits, radioactive waste detected in driveways and perilously close to home foundations. Legal representatives for the affected residents emphasize that the government’s inaction contradicts the recently released Policy for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning. Elected officials have also voiced their support for immediate cleanup.

This situation underscores the critical need for stringent regulations and robust environmental management to prevent future contamination. The residents of Elliot Lake remain unyielding in their commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of their community. Their collective voice calls for accountability, and they demand remediation as a matter of urgency.

Lessons Learned

To prevent future instances of contamination like those in Grassy Narrows and Elliot Lake, it is crucial to strengthen environmental regulations, prioritize Indigenous rights and consultation, conduct thorough risk assessments, ensure transparency and accountability from industries, involve affected communities, establish long-term monitoring and remediation plans, educate the public, support affected communities, encourage sustainable practices, and engage in international collaboration for global environmental standards. By taking these comprehensive measures, we can work towards a future where communities and ecosystems are protected from the enduring consequences of environmental contamination.