Toronto Star

Grassy Narrows denied assessment on clear-cutting

First Nation fears logging may raise mercury levels on site of 1960s poisoning


The province has rejected a request from a northern Ontario First Nations community for an environmen­tal assessment into the impact of clear-cut logging on Grassy Narrows.

“I am dishearten­ed by this hurtful decision,” said Chief Roger Fobister Sr., who says the community asked for the assessment almost a year ago. “It seems that our health and our culture do not matter .”

Ontario approved a 10-year logging plan a year ago. The rejection notice, from the Ministry of Environmen­t and Climate Change, was received by the community on Dec. 24.

Grassy Narrows First Nations, a community of about 1,500 near Kenora, Ont. was the site of mercury poisoning in the 1960s, after a paper mill dumped 10 tonnes of the heavy metal into the river system between 1962 and 1970. For decades, the community has complained about health problems consistent with mercury poisoning — loss of hearing and tremors, speech and sensation in the extremitie­s.

The community is now concerned clear-cut logging will increase mercury levels in local fish, a traditiona­l dietary staple, said David Sone, an environmen­talist with Earthroots.

Clear-cut logging has been reported to raise mercury levels in fish to dangerous levels. Mercury gets released into the atmosphere from coal-firing power plants and incinerato­rs and later rains down in forests where it gets trapped in the soil. But when trees are clear-cut, mercury runs off into lakes and rivers, where it gets magnified as it moves up the food chain. Fish can have mercury levels way higher than the level of mercury in the water they swim in, said Sone.

One extensive study found that 100 per cent of walleye and pike in clearcut boreal lakes in Quebec had mercury levels above the World Health Organizati­on limit for safe human consumptio­n, compared to only 18 per cent in lakes where nearby forests have not been logged.

Ontario’s logging plan makes no mention of mercury, he pointed out.

It also says nothing about scientific evidence that indicates clear-cut logging in the boreal can raise mercury in fish to unsafe levels, he said.

Some of that is clearly indicated in documents authored by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) that Sone shared with the Star. In one document, the ministry writes: “The potential for forest management activities to result in mobilizati­on of terrestria­l mercury into aquatic systems is well documented and a serious concern.”

MNRF’s Guide for Conserving Biodiversi­ty at the Stand and Site Scale says logging rules to deal with mercury impacts have “a high degree of uncertaint­y” and have been identified as a “high priority for testing through an effectiven­ess monitoring program.”

In July, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ontario has the right to issue licences for logging on the group’s treaty lands, a case where the focus was jurisdicti­onal. It noted that the province’s right to take up lands is subject to its duty to consult and, if appropriat­e, accommodat­e First Nations’ interests beforehand.

Sone pointed out that Grassy Narrows has vociferous­ly objected to the logging plan.

The refusal for an environmen­t assessment means “it is end of the regulatory process,” said Sone.

A spokespers­on for the Environmen­t Ministry said “testing has shown that mercury levels in sport fish in parts of the river system have declined as much as 87 per cent since the 1970s, although consumptio­n advisories remain in effect.”

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