Current Problems

Health (18-24)

Star Investigation: A Poisoned People

July 24, 2016

The steady drip of the neurotoxin mercury has percolated through river sediment, the food chain and generations of Grassy Narrows First Nations residents for more than four decades, killing a community’s livelihood and then contaminating its people.

Former Grassy Narrows chief Steve Fobister is in constant pain and suffers from symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, thought to be a result of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, Ontario.Todd Korol / Toronto Star

By David Bruser News Reporter, Jayme Poisson News reporter

Toronto Star: GRASSY NARROWS FIRST NATION—For more than 40 years the mercury has percolated through river sediment, the food chain and generations of residents.

From 100 kilometres upstream, the slow, steady drip of the neurotoxin first killed a community’s livelihood and then contaminated its people.

A disability board — set up by government officials in the mid-1980s to compensate those who can show doctors they suffer symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning — has approved claims from more than 300 applicants who suffer from tremors, loss of muscle co-ordination, slurred speech and tunnel vision.

One of them was Marlin Kokopenace’s 17-year-old son, Calvin.

“(Calvin) was pretty frail. When he passed on he practically had no muscle,” Marlin Kokopenace said, adding: “Me, I lose my balance at times. When I’m walking, sometimes I feel like I sidestep . . . (And) I get tremors, sometimes, in my hands.”

His father said Calvin never crawled as a baby, did not walk until age three, had poor balance and symptoms of autism, and that the compensation board found he had mercury poisoning symptoms. Calvin also suffered from muscular dystrophy, and complications of the degenerative condition caused his death in November 2014. Marlin believes mercury contributed to the disease.

“But never did I ever think that I was going to lose a second child to this.”

In April of this year, Calvin’s 14-year-old sister, Azraya, died in the woods near Kenora. “She took her own life, apparently,” Marlin said. “After my son died . . . she went through severe depression.”

The mercury poisoning of the residents of Grassy Narrows and the fish they eat has been well documented after the old Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated then by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon-English River system between 1962 and 1970.

The rivers and lakes were contaminated for at least 250 km, according to a report by the disability board.

Mercury has historically been used in the production of thermometers, paint, tooth fillings and, at the Dryden mill in the 1960s, the process that bleached pulp for paper.

The metal does not break down in the environment and can build up in living things, known as bioaccumulation, “inflicting increasing levels of harm on higher order species,” according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Bacteria that thrive in wet, low-oxygen environments such as lake bottoms turn mercury into its most toxic form, methylmercury. The methylmercury migrates up the food chain to fish and then the locals who eat the fish.

Absorbed through the digestive tract, methylmercury “readily enters the brain” where it can remain for a long time, according to Health Canada. In a pregnant woman, it can build in the fetal brain and other tissues.

Water flows in the Wabigoon River that is contaminated with mercury near Grassy Narrows, Ontario.Todd Korol

In Grassy Narrows, Judy Da Silva, a member of the First Nation, recalled how in the 1960s residents first noticed dead fish floating to the surface.

Turkey vultures started to fly as if they were drunk and the otter and mink disappeared. The locals, who’d built a livelihood as fishing and hunting guides, were told to stop eating the fish, though one said the tourist camp operators encouraged guides to keep eating the fish to show the guests it was safe.

The robust fishing tourism industry, especially at famous Ball Lake Lodge, was decimated. The commercial fishermen and guides went on welfare.

What many residents of Grassy Narrows have, according to Japanese scientists, is Minamata disease — also known as methylmercury poisoning. It was first discovered in 1956 in Japan and takes its name from the area around Minamata city in Japan. Illnesses were linked to the industrial waste water from a chemical factory that dumped between 200 and 600 tonnes of mercury (far more than the Dryden plant) into the water system. More severe symptoms in Japan included paralysis, coma and death. Japanese scientist Dr. Masazumi Harada spent the majority of his career examining the effects of the disease.

Harada continued his work in Canada and first tested community members in Grassy Narrows in 1975. He found people with mercury levels over three times the Health Canada limit in Grassy Narrows and seven times the limit in nearby Whitedog. When Harada returned in 2004, all of the people who tested over the limit were dead.

Another study by Harada published in 2005 showed 79 per cent of 175 people tested in those two communities in 2002 and 2004 had or may have had Minamata disease.

He later found psychiatric symptoms, including depression, anxiety and self-injury.

Bill Fobister has been effected by mercury poisoning at Grassy Narrows First Nations in Ontario.Todd Korol

In the mid-1970s, Bill Fobister Sr., then the band council administrator for Grassy Narrows, went to Minamata with other locals on a provincially and federally funded trip to witness the effects of mercury poisoning there.

“I saw what was really happening to the people,” he recalled. “I saw youth deformed, with curled up fingers . . . (and when) they tried to look at you they couldn’t quite focus. They were just sitting there, assisted by their relatives every day. They were in bad shape. They couldn’t help themselves. Those were the severe (cases).”

Before the mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows, Fobister, now 70, was a “camp boy” and hunting and fishing guide, taking tourists on daytrips to catch walleye. Out early in an 18-foot boat, a shore lunch, and then back to Grassy by 4 p.m. When guiding, he ate fish throughout the day and brought some home for his pregnant wife.

“The fishing, the jobs, stopped. It was not safe. It was devastating,” Fobister, who was chief in the 1990s, said of the mercury fallout. “They didn’t have no consideration (for) what they were going to do, the kind of damage that they were going to do to our river system.”

Later, he watched as his community become increasingly dependent on social assistance, and as the trucks brought in frozen fish and processed foods, he also noticed changes in his body that he attributes to mercury.

More recently, he said, his sense of taste has considerably diminished and the tunnel vision he has suffered from for years is worsening. A partial numbness has spread from his lips to his cheeks. He gets a monthly payment of $350 from the Mercury Disability Board.

The board was set up in the 1980s after Grassy Narrows and Whitedog participated in an out-of-court settlement with Ottawa, Ontario and two paper companies for all claims due to mercury contamination. Since its formation, the board has paid a total of $20 million.

There is a 16-point scale the board uses to judge the severity of mercury poisoning symptoms. A score of 6 is required for a minimum payout of $250 per month. The maximum amount is $800 per month.

Fobister scored an 8, though he had applied twice before and scored high enough for the $350 payment.

An applicant must undergo a neurological assessment, and doctors score the severity of symptoms, a compensation board spokesperson told the Star. The benefit, once awarded, is for life.

More than 50 of the 314 compensation recipients were children at the time they were approved for benefits.

Yet locals continue to eat the fish.

Some residents cannot afford a boat to fish in distant, cleaner waterways or to buy food off store shelves.

And there is another, more fundamental reason, according to locals who say the river and lakes have for hundreds of years been the lifeblood of the people.

“We don’t know science. You look at the lake, it looks good, it looks clean, the fish look all right,” said Steve Fobister, Sr., 65, a cousin of Bill Fobister Sr. and a former chief. “How to believe that something like that could turn against you?”

A local resident catches a fish in the Wabigoon River, which is is contaminated with mercury, near Grassy Narrows, Ontario.Todd Korol

Leg cramps, a stutter and loss of balance forced Steve Fobister Sr. to stop working as an engineer on the railroad back in the early 1970s. (He and Bill were examined by the Japanese team and diagnosed with mercury poisoning, they said.)

He then became a band councillor, politically active on the reserve. An old photo, published in the Star in 1978, shows Steve Fobister Sr. and Grassy Narrows resident Fred Land leaning on an Ontario government sign posted in their community. It says, “Check Before You Eat,” and provides guidelines on the consumption of contaminated fish.

In 2014 he made headlines again when he went on a hunger strike to protest that mercury survivors receive inadequate health care and compensation. This time, though, he was in a wheelchair.

“They tell me that I have ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I also have mercury poisoning. I’m also a diabetic,” he said, sitting in the living room of his small house on Grassy Narrows. “It’s been hard living.”

Steve Fobister Sr. attributes his hand weakness, slurred speech and difficulty swallowing to mercury poisoning. He said he gets $250 per month. “A lot of people felt that I should have got the max.”

Citing privacy concerns, the compensation board said it does not discuss individual cases.

“The problem is when we created the mercury disability board, which I was a part of, we didn’t know as much about the effects of mercury as we do today,” Steve Fobister Sr. said.

The criteria for an award have not changed since the board’s inception.

In that time, about 700 of 1,000 total applicants have been turned down.

Harada’s 2011 study found 74 per cent of people diagnosed by his team as impacted or possibly impacted by mercury were not receiving any form of compensation.

Da Silva said her father died fighting for more compensation. The criteria used to determine eligibility is too narrow, she said.

Judy DaSilva from Grassy Narrows suffers from mercury poisoning.Todd Korol

Canadian scientist Dr. Mergler — who in a recently released report reviewed decades of scientific research on mercury’s effects — noted that today’s science shows that mercury poisoning causes damage at low levels previously considered harmless.

In her report, Mergler reviewed cord blood data collected by Health Canada from Grassy Narrows babies between 1978 and 1994. “At these cord blood (mercury) concentrations, there is consensus from the scientific literature that there would be effects on children’s neurodevelopment,” the report said.

The Disability Board assesses children for cerebral palsy and some developmental delays. Board Chair Margaret Wanlin told the Star that in 2010 the board reviewed science from all over the world and could not find a better “diagnostic test” for applicants. “We think our science is as good as it can be,” she said.

Additionally, the payout range ($250 to $800) has not increased in the 30 years of the board’s existence. The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator shows that the dollar amounts established in 1986 are equivalent to nearly double today.

Spurred in part by Steve Fobister Sr.’s brief hunger strike in 2014, the board is currently undergoing a sweeping review by representatives from the provincial and federal governments as well as from Whitedog and Grassy Narrows. A spokesperson from the provincial Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation said the review is set to conclude in September.

There have been other recent developments.

In late May, a provincial government-funded report commissioned by Grassy Narrows was released. It cautioned that despite the passage of time, mercury levels in sediments and fish downstream are still dangerously high. Recent tests show one meal of walleye from Clay Lake contains up to 150 times the safe dose of mercury recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report also said it was possible to clean up the mercury in the waterways.

Then, last month, two provincial government ministers visited the community to discuss more water tests and cleanup options. The government pledged $300,000 to support water, sediment and fish sampling in a stretch of river that Grassy Narrows Council has identified as a top priority. The government has not yet committed to a specific course of action to clean up the river.

Environment Ministry scientists have also started extensive testing of groundwater near the site of the old plant in Dryden and are bringing in sonar to look for buried drums that a former labourer recently said he helped fill with mercury and salt and dumped in a pit behind the mill 40 years ago

Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Fobister (R) listens to Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray at a meeting regarding mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows, Ontario.Todd Korol

“My life is gone, it’s been destroyed,” he said. “I hope the future generations can have a better life than what I have.”

Looking out his living room window, he added: “Mercury is here to stay for the next 100 years.”
Steve Fobister Sr., has run out of patience. The day before the government ministers were to visit the powwow grounds and make their announcements, he said he would stay home.

“Look at me, I’m a sick old man. . . . My community is sick.

“People have been born since the mercury pollution and have only lived on welfare since the day they were born. . . . Morale is very low. We just had a child that committed suicide.”

David Bruser is the Star’s Investigations Editor. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidBruser.

Jayme Poisson
Jayme Poisson is a former investigative reporter for the Star. She has been nominated for three national newspaper awards, was part of a team that won the Governor General’s Michener award for investigating former mayor Rob Ford and also part of team that won the Sydney Hillman award for public service journalism for reporting on sexual assault. She was the 2016 recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Greg Clark Award, which allowed her to study access-to-information laws in Canada, and completed the 2018 Stigler Center Journalist in Residence Program at Chicago Booth Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State.