By Sally Moore
August 18, 1975 12:00 PM

It was in 1970 that Barney and Marion Lamm first heard of mercury poisoning. “Hell,” says Lamm today, “I didn’t even know what mercury was.”

Today the Lamms are in the fifth year of a costly and lonely battle against the dangers of mercury poisoning and those who deny them—and what the Lamms have learned has changed their lives.

For a quarter of a century, Barney Lamm’s Ball Lake Lodge was the most popular tourist fishing camp in northwest Ontario. “It was our whole life,” says Marion, who helped pyramid a two-room log cabin into a million-dollar resort. Born in Fargo, N. Dak. but a Canadian citizen since 1955, Barney, now 55, became the most influential citizen in Kenora, Ontario (pop. 11,000). An expert bush pilot, he also owned a private airline, and his businesses had made him a millionaire.

In the spring of 1970, the Lamms were notified by the Ontario government that the fish in 80-square-mile Ball Lake had been contaminated by mercury from a chemical plant 100 miles upstream. “That’s all we were told,” recalls Lamm, “not how dangerous it was to eat the fish or what we should do. They said the problem would disappear within three months. So we closed the camp and started asking ‘what’s mercury?’ ”

Mercury, they discovered, is a chemical that can attack the human nervous system, causing brain damage, crippling deformities and ultimately death. Its ravages cannot be cured or treated. The ugliest contemporary example of industrial mercury poisoning occurred in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata. The first victim was discovered in 1956, and eventually 110 residents died and hundreds of others were maimed and crippled.

The Lamms knew nothing of the Japanese tragedy in 1970. After shutting down the lodge they haunted the offices of government officials for more details of their predicament. “They had the results of testing fish for mercury but wouldn’t release them,” says Lamm. Angry and frustrated, Lamm himself paid a team of specialists $50,-000 to test the fish along the English-Wabigoon River system, which empties into Ball Lake. “We learned,” says Lamm, “that our river system was one of the most polluted in the world, that mercury levels in our fish tested up to 50 times the accepted international level. In some cases they were higher than in Japan.”

That fall the Lamms went to Ann Arbor, Mich. for a scientific conference on mercury pollution, the first of 50 such meetings they attended. “When they heard our mercury levels, everyone just sat there in silent disbelief. That was when we decided something had to be done. We knew that the three-month waiting period had no basis.” Federal scientists have subsequently admitted that the waterway is ruined for at least a century.

The Lamms claim there is sufficient evidence to fear an outbreak of poisoning such as in Minamata. “All we ever asked was that the government declare our area safe or unsafe,” says Barney Lamm. “And if unsafe, close that part of the river and relocate or compensate the camp owners.

“Instead,” complains Lamm, “they’ve tried to hush us up and keep the camps open. Some of the owners even took loans to stay open when business dropped off because of the mercury scare. Leo Bernier [the Minister of Natural Resources and the MP from the area] tried to sell me on a ‘Fish for Fun’ idea: that fishermen would be happy to throw the fish back. I knew damn well they wouldn’t. He said stay open: I said someone’s going to die.”

So far, the Lamms say, they have spent half a million dollars of their own money in legal fees and scientific studies. (In 1971 Lamm filed a $3.7 million damage suit against Dryden Pulp and Paper and Dryden Chemical, the offending firms.) “We were prepared for the financial burdens. What has disappointed us was that most of the other camp owners have never even warned their guests. Tourists are eating the fish and taking them home. To me that’s like inviting a friend over and offering him a glass of poison.”

The more the Lamms publicized the issue of mercury in Kenora, the more resentment they encountered. “For three years not a day went by without a threatening call or letter,” says Marion Lamm bitterly. “We have five daughters who were taunted. I knew everyone didn’t agree with our closing up but I never expected friends of 25 years to turn on us.” Mrs. Lamm and her daughters have remained U.S. citizens, a further source of resentment against the family, she believes. In 1973 the Lamms put their $75,000 home in Kenora up for sale and moved southwest 100 miles to Gimli, headquarters of their charter airline. The Lamms’s strongest support has come from the area’s 950 Ojibway Indians who depend on fish (mainly pike and pickerel) for their diet. “We have no alternate food supply,” says Chief Roy McDonald. “The government’s offer to us was to move or take welfare.”

After what both federal and provincial officials admit was inexplicable delay, Indian hair and blood samples now are being taken regularly. In some cases mercury levels are as high as those of Minamata victims. “I am convinced some of my people are sick,” says Chief Andy Keewatin. “They have tremors, restricted vision, speech difficulty.” Says Dr. James Stopps, chief medical consultant for the Ontario health department, “If you have all three symptoms and a high mercury level, that’s Minamata.”

Reed Paper Ltd., the parent company of the Dryden plants, claims that the two situations are not comparable. The kind of mercury the plants leaked into the river is less harmful than that in Japan, the company says, and it insists that it took immediate corrective measures upon being warned. The company says it is now dumping 1/5 ounce a day into the river system, hardly a cause for alarm.

One Japanese doctor, however, who visited the Kenora Indians found their mercury levels “shocking.” According to Dr. Tadao Takeuchi, a pathologist and Minamata expert who has tested cats from the Indian reserve (cats first showed signs of the disease in Minamata): “If fish consumption continues, signs will appear sooner or later.” Late last month, Barney Lamm accompanied a group of Ojibway to Minamata to meet victims and medical experts firsthand. More Japanese doctors will visit Kenora this fall for further testing. “What’s tragic about this situation,” says Lamm, “is that if people are hurt it will be too late. But at least when someone dies I know I won’t have contributed to it.”