Paper and pulp industry in Dryden, Ontario
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During the late 1890s, there were several sawmills operating in the Dryden, Ontario area. They primarily supplied the builders of the Canadian Pacific Railway(CPR) with railway timber, and powered the many steam boilers used for mining in that area. In 1909, Charles and Grant Gordon began the construction of a paper mill on the west side of the Wabigoon River, where a paper mill is currently located. The mill's location has some advantages, because it has an abundant electricity supply from the river and a plentiful supply of wood. It also happened to be 130 kilometers upstream from the Grassy Narrows traditional area.
In 1911, the rights of the timber lease were transferred from the Gordon brothers to the Dryden Timber and Power Company because the building they were constructing burned down in 1910, and they did not have means to complete their project. Dryden Timber and Power Company constructed a new mill and started to operate in 1913; it was the first Kraft pulp mill in Northwestern Ontario. Power chain saws, safety pants and safety gloves were introduced with the ownership of Dryden Paper Company in the early 1960s, resulting in a tremendous increase in productivity for the loggers.
Afterward, the ownership of the mill changed several times. Ownership was transferred from Weyerhaeuser to Domtar (its present owner) in March 2007 for approximately US$520 million. It has an annual pulp production capacity of 319,000 tonnes in 1 pulp line.
Dryden Chemicals Ltd, which was a subsidiary of the British multinational, Reed International company, used mercury cells in sodium chloride electrolysis to make caustic soda and chlorine for bleaching paper, and they dumped their 10 tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970. The English-Wabigoon River served as a source of a food and drinking water, and was also a contributor to the local economy as a fishery and guiding.
By 1970, the English-Wabigoon River was polluted with chemical waste, and the pollution spread to the Winnipeg River and eventually to Lake Winnipeg. As a result, the people of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog were negatively affected and suffered from mercury poisoning, one variant of which is called Minamata disease (it originally occurred in Japan in the Minamata Bay area during 1952–60).
About 850 First Nations people were living on the two reserves when the mercury issue arose, and they were told to stop eating fish and drinking water. Also, the commercial fishery and fishing guides services were forced to close, resulting in mass unemployment in the community. Furthermore, "the impact of the mercury poisoning on the local economy had not received attention for a long time." And the Ontario government did not address the issue for a long time.
In 2015, a former employee claimed he had participated in further dumping drums of mercury in 1972. Grassy Narrows Chief Simon Frobisher believes this dumping was done at a separate, un-monitored site.
Dryden chemical executives repeatedly insisted that mercury occurred naturally in the local environment, and the mill's effluence was not the only source of mercury in the river. However, fish taken from the area of the mill showed much higher levels of mercury than fish from other areas.
The Ontario government warned the First Nation residents to stop eating fish, which is their main staple food, and closed down their commercial fishery in November 1970. Even though the hair and blood samples of people in Grassy Narrows and White Dog showed that the blood mercury levels exceeded the level considered safe for humans, the Canadian federal government denied the occurrence of Minamata disease and insisted that no serious typical cases were found in those regions. Even a 1971 provincial report suggested that the mercury might have occurred naturally because of its chemical property.
The definition of Minamata disease was not clear at the time, and the level of contamination in Japan's case of Minamata disease was much more serious and lethal than the ones in Canada. Also, the symptoms of Minamata disease are similar to alcoholic inebriation, including loss of coordination and concentration and body tremors. Public awareness of the problem grew during the 1970s. The federal government paid $4.4 million ($10,143,113 today) to Grassy Narrows for social service and economic development on July 27, 1984. The federal government has paid more than $9 million for compensation to the First Nations affected by the mercury contamination.
Since the early 1900s and the opening of the first sawmill in Dryden, the forest industry has played a significant role in the economy of the city. Today, Domtar, the largest integrated producer of uncoated paper in North America and the second-largest in the world in terms of production capacity, owns a pulp manufacturer in Dryden that produces one pulp product called Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft (NBSK). The mill produces 319,000 air dry metric tons of NBSK annually, which is sold on the open market. However, the paper and pulp sector is facing economic deterioration.
On April 2, 2009, Domtar Corporation announced that it would idle its Dryden pulp making mills for approximately ten weeks starting April 25, 2009 due to the lack of global demand for pulp. As a result, 230 workers have been off work since the mill closed. However, mill employees working in Dryden began slowly returning to work at Domtar's pulp mill in July 2009.
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