Professor Patricia Sellers’ (Biology) research on mercury contamination has helped spur the Canadian government into addressing a long-overdue environmental injustice.
Last June, the Canadian government announced it would earmark $85 million to clean up mercury contamination in the Wabigoon River in Ontario, Canada. The announcement comes nearly 50 years after mercury contamination was first discovered and after generations of people of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations have suffered from mercury poisoning. The people ingested mercury by way of drinking water and consuming fish and other wildlife connected to the river.
Patricia is part of a scientific research team, led by Dr. John Rudd, which has monitored mercury levels in the Wabigoon-English River for many years while working closely with the Grassy Narrows community. The river was contaminated with mercury when Reed Paper’s chlor-alkali plant in Dryden, Ontario, disposed of several tons of mercury into the river during the 1960s.
In May of 2016, the team reported that the river and nearby Clay Lake appeared to continue to receive mercury, either because mercury that was trapped in sediment was being released or because mercury was being leaked from the plant itself. The team also reported that the river could be cleaned so that mercury levels in fish would be reduced, enabling people to consume fish without risk of mercury contamination. News reports indicate that remediation and monitoring efforts will proceed based on the team’s recommendations.
In a CBC News audio report, Patricia was interviewed about her 2015 research report on the contamination of the river and the effects of mercury on people of Grassy Narrows. Patricia is also the lead author on a March 2017 report that documented large levels (many times the background level) of mercury downstream of the chlor-alkali plant and low concentrations upstream of the plant. This suggests that the plant continues to leak mercury. Large levels of mercury downstream of the plant were also correlated with high concentrations of mercury in fish downstream.
Patricia, who is a freshwater ecologist, has been on the research team for more than a decade, and she has worked as a scientific advisor for the Grassy Narrows First Nation since 2004. She joined the UNCP Biology faculty in 2005.