Beginning in the early 1960's, the Dryden Chemical Company discharged chemical waste into the Wabigoon-English River system, upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation. The chemical waste contained mercury, and was the byproduct of a process used to create the chemicals necessary to bleach paper. It is estimated that 9000 kilograms of mercury were dumped into the river between 1962 and 1970, when the mercury contamination was discovered. Upon discovery of the mercury contamination, the Ontario government ordered the Dryden Chemical Company to stop discharging waste containing mercury into the river system, but did not regulate airborne mercury emissions.
Mercury has negative effects on aquatic ecosystems and human health. Mercury bioaccumulates in aquatic species, and biomagnifies through food chains. Many organisms, including humans, fish and other aquatic species absorb mercury at a higher rate than their body can eliminate it, leading to the bioaccumulation of mercury. As these organisms are consumed by others, the mercury is transferred, and can result in a higher concentration of mercury (biomagnification). The accumulation of mercury in the human body can cause adverse health effects, including Minamata disease, a serious neurological disease.
The people of the Grassy Narrows First Nation have traditionally relied on fish from the Wabigoon-English river system as a main component of their diet. Most species of fish store accumulated mercury in their muscle, making it impossible to cut out or avoid, and impossible to detect without lab testing. The contamination of the water has compromised their health and traditional lifestyle.
In 1975, Dr Harada, a Japanese doctor familiar with mercury poisoning and Minamata disease visited the Grassy Narrows and tested mercury levels of Grassy Narrows residents. He found that 44.9% of residents were suffering from limb pain, a very common symptom of Minamata disease. Many residents also showed additional symptoms such as numbness, cramps and sensory disturbances. Dr Harada concluded that the residents were suffering from mild Minamata disease. Residents received compensation, but the river system was never cleaned up.
From May 31st to June 1st, residents of Grassy Narrows participated in River Run 2016, travelling 1700 kilometres to Toronto to call on Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to clean up the mercury contamination in the Wabigoon-English River system. River Run 2016 gained national attention, including articles in the Toronto Star, Huffington Post Canada, and CBC News.
The David Suzuki Foundation has created a petition in support of Grassy Narrows. The Grassy Narrows First Nation has created a template for anyone who would like to send a message to Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.