Two weeks ago, Rachel reported that the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that a mining operation in Idaho was contaminating creeks with toxic selenium, causing deformities in fish populations. And the horrifyingly unsafe levels of selenium in the water—in some places more than 14 times the legal limit—had led to the birth of at least two sickly double-headed trouts.
The New York Times reports that the J.R. Simplot Company, the owner of the mine, had been instructed to conduct its own environmental research, and had included photos of some of the many deformed fish in the appendix of its report. The FWS, in determining that research to be overwhelmingly biased towards the mining operation, unearthed the photos, particularly of the two-headed fish—and environmental groups went wild.
How could they not? It's a two-headed fish, mutated from exposure to toxic industrial pollution. You're unlikely to find a more powerful symbol of corporate exploitation of the natural habitat than that—plus, it invokes Blinky, everyone's favorite three-eyed, radiation-exposed fish from the Simpsons.
But the fish may do more than just spur outrage and finger-pointing at Simplot, the mining company responsible. It may drive a nationwide reexamination of selenium rules, and lead to stricter, safer standards across the country. Here's the NY Times:
The implications extend beyond Idaho. Selenium is a pollutant at 200 of the 1,294 locations designated by the federal government as toxic Superfund sites. And even though its effects on wildlife have been known for decades, federal agencies have not been able to agree on what level should be prohibited. The E.P.A. is currently reviewing federal selenium rules.Mining companies, of course, want the regulations to remain low, so they won't be held responsible for allowing the stuff to leech into streams and rivers, so they won't have to invest as heavily in measures that would prevent that from happening. And the EPA hasn't been as ardent about examining the case, because selenium is believed to have a greater impact on wildlife than humans, though it does distinct harm to us, too, "with symptoms including hair and fingernail loss and numbness in fingers and toes. It has been regulated in drinking water since the 1970s," according to the Times.
As such, it's time to step up the regulation efforts—scientists agree that we're allowing too much selenium into bodies of water, but have been unable to rally around a safe benchmark.
Powerful, emotionally resonant symbols like mutated animals are often, unfortunately, what it takes to drive meaningful change in the environmental arena—sometimes it takes a two-headed fish to get through our skulls the extent of the damage we're levying on the natural world.