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Ontario party leaders pledge mercury contamination cleanup for Grassy Narrows

Last Updated May 18, 2018 at 12:42 pm EDT

Over one thousand people walked with Grassy Narrows today to demand a clean up of the mercury poison that has been left in their river for over 50 years. An expert report released on Monday found that the river is still highly contaminated, but it can be cleaned safely. (Courtesy Allan Lissner/FreeGrassy.net)

Cleaning up a mercury-contaminated river that has plagued First Nation communities in northern Ontario for decades “will take as long as it takes,” the province’s Liberal premier said Friday as her NDP rival took her election campaign to the region.

“This is a shame that is not partisan because there have been Liberal, Conservative and NDP governments that have not been able to tackle this situation,” Kathleen Wynne said at a campaign stop in Toronto.

People in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nation have dealt with mercury poisoning since a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in northwestern Ontario in the 1960s. A report authored by five mercury experts and released last year suggested mercury could still be leaking into the river system.

Mercury concentrations haven’t decreased in 30 years and dangerous levels are still present in sediment and fish, causing ongoing health and economic impacts in the community.

Wynne, whose government committed $85 million for the remediation of the river system, said preliminary work is starting now, but didn’t give a timeline for when people living nearby can expect the water to be safe.

“They are putting in place the conditions, the infrastructure to deal with the clean-up, because there are a number of things that have to happen,” she said. “Whatever leakage that is still happening has to be stopped and then whatever mercury is in the system has to be cleaned up, so that work is underway now and it will take as long as it takes. It has to be done.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was taking her election campaign to Grassy Narrows on Friday.

Her party has been critical of how the Liberal government has handled the mercury contamination issue. The NDP platform promises to clean up the river system, but doesn’t indicate how they would do it or if their plan would differ from what the Liberals have promised.

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said in a statement that a Tory government would make it a priority to “work as quickly as we can to clean up the contamination.”

Ford, meanwhile, continued to face questions about allegations that a Progressive Conservative candidate who resigned was involved in an alleged theft of customer data at a toll highway operator.

Tory candidate Simmer Sandhu, who was running in the riding of Brampton East, abruptly resigned Wednesday night, citing unspecified allegations about his work life and nomination campaign that he denies.

Ford, who was in London, Ont., to pledge that a Progressive Conservative government would cut health-care wait times, faced multiple questions about the matter, which police are looking into.

Ford said as far as he knows, Brampton East is the only riding allegedly involved in what the 407 Express Toll Route company called “an internal theft of customer data”