A government report released this week has found that selenium contamination from a phosphate mine in Idaho is connected to fish deformities in the area, including two-headed trout—and the problem would worsen if water quality standards are relaxed, which is what the company is asking for.
The findings come as Smoky Canyon Mine, run by the J.R. Simplot Company near the Wyoming border, is asking the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to relax restrictions on the amount of selenium that the mine may drain into tributaries of the Snake River, a world-class trout stream.
Simplot, one of the nation's largest privately held companies with annual sales of about $4.5 billion, wields considerable clout in its home state, where its products range from turf grass seed to frozen French fries for fast-food chains like McDonald's.
Environmentalists' concerns about selenium, an element released as a byproduct of the mining operation, prompted a U.S. Senate panel to ask contaminant specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate whether Simplot's request would harm wild trout and other species.
Mining Company vs. Environmentalists
Yet Simplot argues the effects seen in fish are just one piece of a complex puzzle, and stands behind its proposal to relax the water quality standards. AP explains what's at stake in the decision both for Simplot and for opponents of the proposed new standards:
For Simplot, working with rules allowing for higher levels of selenium than currently allowed could save time and money devoted to cleanup and future monitoring.
For environmentalists, a change in standard could open the door to legal challenges or other mining companies seeking the same change in a region already impaired by decades of mining. And at least one federal agency has already weighed in, raising concerns about Simplot's research and claims the company is underestimating the potential impacts any change could have on fish.
Underestimating the Impact
Simplot doesn't deny that the selenium contamination has some effects—the company hired toxicologists to test selenium exposure and found that many developing brown trout died and others were hatched with two heads. What the company has done, the government review found, is underestimate these effects. More again from Reuters:
Fish and Wildlife Service scientists found Simplot underestimated rates of deformity and mortality in the wild linked to selenium exposure. The agency said Simplot had failed to account for deformities of trout that had died, skewing the rate of abnormalities in the company's favor.
The company's findings "systematically biased low and environmentally unrealistic quantification of larval deformity rates," according to the government report, which was reviewed by three independent scientists.
The story explains that other wildlife, such as mallard ducks, are also affected but Simplot did not analyze those risks. The phosphate mined is used to produce fertilizer and livestock feed supplements.
This is not the first time that selenium contamination has harmed wildlife; California's Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge saw major deformities in birds and a massive fish die-off in the 1980s, but that led to the closure of the refuge.
AP quotes Marv Hoyt, Idaho director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition: "Any change in the standard would do nothing more than get Simplot off the hook to clean up as much as they should... How does anything being proposed by Simplot help improve the environment or the population of fish in those streams?"