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Environment minister hopeful Domtar will comply with mercury testing order in northwestern Ontario

ONTARIO (From news reports) -- Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) hopes to get to the bottom of ongoing mercury contamination of the Wabigoon River by ordering a pulp and paper company to run tests to determine if its Dryden mill is the source of the leak.

However, in response, Domtar has pledged to fight any such order in court.

The MOECC announced this week that a draft director's order under the Environmental Protection Act -- which, Environment Minister Glen Murray said is put forward by MOECC scientists, not politicians -- is available online for comment.

After that, the MOECC will review any submissions before implementing the order.

"This is normalizing the practice, this is not a new thing we do, this isn't being done particularly to Domtar," Murray said Tuesday. "When we discover somewhere in Ontario that there is a toxin or a contaminant or a pollutant that is leaking off any property or from any site, these are the measures that we take under Ontario law."

If the order goes through as proposed, it would compel Domtar to assess groundwater and soil at its Dryden mill site, as well as surface water and sediment within the adjacent Wabigoon River, to determine if mercury is being discharged from the mill site into the river.

The assessment would include the installation of monitoring wells, and a geophysical survey of the site.

Domtar, however, has pledged to fight any order in court.

"We are disappointed that the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has proposed an Order that seeks to compel Domtar to undertake activities that are the responsibility of the Province of Ontario," David Struhs, the company's vice-president of corporate services, said in a statement.

"Ontario's proposed Order raises the concern that the government is seeking to transfer its responsibilities for the management of historical mercury contamination associated with the mill site in Dryden to an innocent bystander."

The statement goes on to say that Domtar will seek a stay of the order, as well as "also take legal action against the Ontario government to compel it to honour its commitments."

The Dryden mill site was the source of documented historical mercury contamination of the Wabigoon River, when Reed Paper dumped mercury into the river in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The mercury poisoned the river's fish, as well as residents of nearby Indigenous communities who consumed it.

The government has pledged to remediate that historic contamination. However, a recent scientific study revealed that mercury is still leaking into the river from an unidentified, still-active source.

"Based on that science, not me, but the ministry scientists and experts working with the director determined that the evidence was more than sufficient to take the next step," Murray said. "And that's the order."

If the second source of mercury is discovered to be the Domtar site, the company would be responsible for cleaning it up under the order, Murray said.

Domtar -- which purchased the mill in 2007 -- notes in its statement that the company has never used mercury on that site. Murray said the company owns the land, and is responsible for any leak.

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