A dispute between the provincial government and Weyerhaeuser Co. and Resolute Forest Products over cleaning up contamination affecting Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation is heading to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Supreme Court will hear the case, regarding whether or not Ontario can force the companies to clean up a contaminated site, upstream from the community, where toxic effluent, containing mercury, was dumped from mill operations in the 1960s.
The province had previously ordered the companies, former owners of the mill now operated by Domtar, to remediate the dumping site in 2011.
In a 2016 battle over the remediation order, Ontario’s Superior Court ruled that the companies were indemnified, owing to indemnity granted in 1985 to the owners of the site at the time, Dryden Paper Company Limited and Great Lakes Forest Products Limited. That would put the cost of cleanup on the government.
In 2017, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned that ruling on appeal from the Ministry of Environment. Earlier, in 1979, the government offered protection from future environmental liability to Great Lakes Paper and Reed Paper, another previous owner, to boost the odds of selling the mill.
That indemnification was upheld in 1985 when the Great Lakes and Reed Paper settled a lawsuit with Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations.
The Ontario government took the position that that indemnity covered third party claims resulting from spills, not compliance costs.
Mercury contamination has long impacted Grassy Narrows residents. Commercial fishing shut down owing to the toxicity of the English and Wabigoon Rivers and its fish.
Researcher Donna Mergler released a report in May 2018 showing the physical and mental health of Grassy Narrows residents is worse than that of other First Nations residents in Canada.
According to the report, there are fewer Grassy Narrows elders, higher rates of suicide, and greater rates of socio-economic issues, as well as health problems linked to consuming contaminated fish.