Mad as a Hatter: Canada’s mercury pollution on Indigenous lands

Mad as a Hatter: Canada’s mercury pollution on Indigenous lands

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John Ahni Schertow
, The Dominion 
August 15, 2008
 

If a thermometer breaks in a classroom, spilling mercury, most children are taught to stay away. “That’s all it takes to poison an entire body of water,” teachers will tell them. Many children also read Alice In Wonderland at school, and are familiar with the Mad Hatter. Few, however, know that the crazy character in the children’s story is suffering from “mad hatter’s syndrome,” or mercury poisoning. Even less likely to appear in schoolbooks is the fact that there are hundreds of sites in Canada contaminated with this highly toxic metal, many of them on Indigenous lands.

The Anishinabek of Grassy Narrows, Whitedog and Quibell

In 1970 the government of Canada informed commercial fishermen and tourist-lodge owners along the English-Wabigoon River system in north western Ontario that the fish were testing for extremely high levels of mercury and that the rivers were poisoned.

Soon after the announcement, the source of contamination was discovered: Dryden Chemicals Limited had been dumping its untreated mercury wastewater into the river. All told, the company released more than 20,000 pounds of mercury-contaminated wastewater between 1962 and 1970.

Just upstream from Dryden’s plant were the communities of Quibell (later known as Wabauskang First Nation), Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) and Wabaseemong (Whitedog First Nation). After the warning was made public, the Ontario government told the First Nations communities to stop eating the fish — their main food source — and further advised Grassy Narrows to shut down its commercial fishery.

The economies were devastated. In Grassy Narrows alone, the employment rate dropped from 90 per cent to 10. In addition, residents had to find different food sources and many were already suffering from mercury poisoning.

Mercury poisoning, or Minamata disease, causes eye problems, loss of co-ordination, numbness in the hands and feet, loss of memory, loss of strength, severe birth defects, “insanity,” neurological disorders and death. People in Grassy Narrows, Whitedog and Quibell all showed symptoms of poisoning.

“Aware of the possibility of getting compensation for loss of livelihood,” notes the Grassy Narrows & Islington Bands Mercury Disability Board website, “the two First Nations immediately began to look into ways of getting financial assistance for its members. It took 16 years to achieve their goal.”

In 1985, the Federal and Provincial Government, along with Dryden Chemical’s parent company Reed Inc. and Great Lakes Forest Products, paid the communities of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog a little over $16 million.

The mercury, however, was never removed from the water.

At the time of the settlement, “scientists and government officials assured them [the communities] that the mercury would be completely out of the system in 30 years,” says Dr. Leanne Simpson, a researcher from the Alderville First Nation who works with Grassy Narrows and Wabauskang, in a June 9, 2008, press release.

Discussing the Final Report of the Wabauskang First Nations Indigenous Knowledge and Contaminants Program, Dr. Simpson further explains that mercury concentrations in 1975 ranged “from 0.47 to 5.98 ppm [parts per million]. Health Canada’s guideline for the safe consumption of fish for frequent fish eaters is 0.2 ppm.”

Understanding that mercury doesn’t just ‘disappear’ but rather works its way up the food chain and throughout the environment, two joint studies between Grassy Narrows and Wabauskang were initiated and completed in 2002 and 2004. The studies indicated that there were still high concentrations of mercury in the local populations of pike, walleye and otters.

Further, residents from both communities continue to suffer from an array of mercury-poisoning symptoms. The Mercury Disability Board, established on December 31, 2007 to implement the terms of the 1985 settlement, has processed 819 initial applications for benefits from adults and another 88 applications for children.

The current situation for the small community of Quibell, known today as the Wabauskang First Nation, is even worse than for Grassy Narrows and White Dog.

In 1919 a plague of smallpox and tuberculosis were introduced onto the Wabauskang reservation and the population was virtually decimated. Possibly facing extinction, the few surviving Wabauskang scattered themselves throughout the region. “Some… chose to relocate to their traplines and hunting grounds to escape the disease, others moved to the old Grassy Narrows Reserve, to Lac Seule, Eagle Lake, and Quibell,” Dr. Simpson explains.

In the mid-1940s people at Quibell started getting sick. “It was the children and babies who bore the brunt of [it]. Between 1947 and 1949, 10 babies died, all in their first year of life, and all had violent seizures, and what doctors and nurses at the time called ‘an incurable disease,'” continues Dr. Simpson. “Most of the babies that died were bottle fed with Carnation milk mixed directly with water from the river.”

While not official, Dryden was likely responsible for these deaths. The company used a process called ‘krafting’ to make pulp, which generated a toxic black liquid that mills at the time would simply pour into the river. “Kraft pulp and paper mills were notorious for using Hg compounds [such as mercury chloride]… to keep pulp and paper from rotting,” Dr. Simspon adds. “This could have easily been spilled into the river system and converted to methylmercury.”

Years later — too late for many residents of Quibell, according to Simpson — the company installed a recovery boiler which allowed them to recycle the black liquid.

Then came the second wave of mercury pollution from 1962-70. During this time, Dryden operated a mercury cell chlor-alkali plant to make chlorine for bleaching paper, a process that generates tons of mercury waste. Dumping the waste into the river, the people of Quibell were further devastated, along with the Grassy Narrows and White Dog communities.

Shortly after Dryden’s actions were made public, the government decided to re-establish the Wabauskang reserve, and the community of Quibell was relocated.

The government excluded the people of Quibell from the Grassy Narrows and Whitedog settlement. In fact, the residents didn’t even know they were suffering from mercury poisoning until the 1980s.

Former residents of Quibell want to know why they were excluded from the settlement. Not only were they closer to Dryden than the other two communities, but even now there are several Wabauskang suffering from mercury poisoning symptoms.

Thousands and thousands more

In Canada today there are dozens of chlor-alkali plants, pulp mills, coal-powered generation plants, various mining projects (such as gold mines) and other industrial facilities that use and release mercury near indigenous communities. Environment Canada’s 2005 National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) reports a total of 172 facilities within a 50 km distance of 135 communities across the country.

Communities that report local mercury pollution include Akwesasne, Fort William, Aamjiwnaang, Pictou Landing, James Bay, Cheslatta, Tl’azt’en, Tse Keh Nay, Norway House, Eel River Bar, Fort Chipewyan, Fort MacKay, West Moberly and Fort Simpson (Deh Cho). All have reports of local mercury pollution.

With the exception of Grassy Narrows, Whitedog, Wabauskang, and possibly James Bay, a thorough study has never been conducted to show whether or not these communities are suffering mercury poisoning. However, the 1999 Health Canada report “Methylmercury in Canada: Exposure of First Nations and Inuit Residents to Methylmercury in the Canadian Environment, Volume 3,” may give us an indication. The report revealed 17,671 Indigenous People found with blood-mercury levels ranging from 20-699 ppb (parts per billion) between 1971 and 1996.

In a message posted on the Friends of Anishinabek of the Gitchi Gami website, John H.W. Hummel, a pollution researcher based in British Colombia, explains that “when mercury or lead levels of 5 ppb to 6 ppb are found in the brain, 25 per cent of the glial progenitor stem cells simply ‘shut down’! These particular brain cells are absolutely crucial for building the brain during infancy and beyond. This type of brain cell is also found in adults.”

Hummel believes that the thousands of Indigenous who have been ignored by the government should embark on a class-action lawsuit and has contacted Tony Merchant, from Merchant Law Group. Based in Saskatchewan, Mr. Merchant is the lawyer behind the recent compensation settlement for residential-school victims.

In his reply to Hummel, Merchant said he does not believe anything can be done for Grassy Narrows because of the 1985 settlement, however, “If there are identifiable mercury issues elsewhere” then such a lawsuit is a possibility. “We are prepared to pursue this issue,” Merchant says. “We are prepared to fund the battle which includes a battle regarding experts. If there are projects that we might undertake we will undertake them.”

Photo from The Victorian Web

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