The baby brown trout has become the symbol of a 15-year effort to clean up phosphate mine waste in Southeast Idaho that has cost millions of dollars but is years from completion.
The tiny fry was the progeny of trout taken from two streams below the J.R. Simplot Co.’s Smoky Canyon Mine and raised in a hatchery in Wyoming. Its photo was one of several dozen in an appendix to a 2,070-page study Simplot did in an attempt to show that allowing higher levels of selenium could be allowed in creeks below the mine.
Mutated Yellowstone cutthroat fry, raised from hatchery fish that never swam in Idaho, also were pictured. One of those fry also grew two heads. But that fish had not been subjected to higher selenium.
The photos’ publication in The New York Times and elsewhere around the country brought attention to the study and the overall cleanup. On Thursday, The Daily Show ran a segment on the fish and Simplot’s mine on Comedy Central. (A link to the video is on the left side of this page.)
The publicity has, in the public mind, linked Simplot’s phosphate mining with mutant fish. The irony is that the photo was included in the Simplot report to bolster the company’s point that all fish populations have some mutations, and that levels of selenium in two specific creeks can be set higher without harming the fish populations that have become good at surviving in those conditions.
The two-headed fish in the non-Idaho control group underscored that deformities happen in all populations. It’s the rate of deformity that matters, and Simplot argued that the rates of deformity in the fish in its creeks are not dramatically different.
There’s broad consensus that high levels of selenium are bad, especially for aquatic life. But the exact level remains debated among scientists and federal agencies.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researcher earlier this year found the Simplot study wanting, saying it minimized the rate of deformities in baby fish.
While the debate continues over the science and the conclusions of the Simplot-financed report, even the company’s critics say the photos, while provocative, add little to their case against the company’s effort to change selenium limits.
PHOSPHATE, SELENIUM AND IDAHO
A section of the Clean Water Act allows companies to petition for a site-specific rule, if they can show the rule wouldn’t reduce environmental protection.
Earlier this year, Simplot asked the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to approve higher limits on selenium in Sage and Crow creeks below the mine. Simplot said its study showed that selenium levels can exceed the current federal standard of 5 parts per billion and still protect fish populations that have been stable in the creeks for decades.
DEQ water quality chief Barry Burnell said the agency still has a long way to go before determining whether to approve the change. DEQ has more questions for Simplot and the Environmental Protection Agency before it makes any recommendation. Then the Idaho Board of Environmental Quality must approve the change; the Idaho Legislature must also sign off.
“Our objective continues to be using the best science to help determine whether a site-specific criterion for selenium is appropriate,” said Alan Prouty, Simplot vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs. “Any proposed change in the criterion has to be protective of the environment.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group that opposes Simplot’s proposed change, said setting higher levels of acceptable selenium would let Simplot and other companies clean up less of the waste from a century of phosphate mining.
Marv Hoyt, the group’s Idaho director, said such a change also could influence national selenium standards under review by the EPA.
“What this is really about is getting Simplot off the hook for cleaning up its Smoky Canyon Superfund site,” Hoyt said.
Prouty said Simplot is sticking to the science.
“We are focusing on a rigorous technical evaluation of the comments received on our work and reviewing other related studies,” he said in a statement.
QUALIFIES AS SUPERFUND SITE
Simplot is one of several companies cleaning up phosphate waste after federal agencies discovered selenium contamination in the 1990s. Then, horses and sheep were found dead after drinking water polluted with mine waste; in 2009, 18 cattle were found dead near a closed mine.
Selenium contamination has been measured at three of the region’s five active mines, and at all 13 inactive mines. In 2003, Simplot agreed to clean the area up under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund.
In 2006, Simplot estimated its cleanup would cost more than $112 million. At the time, the company said it needed to do more review and began the study that included the fish pictures. Nearly all of the millions spent on cleanup so far have gone to studies or process.
Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office, the investigating arm of Congress, released a report evaluating the overall cleanup and the work of the federal agencies.
The GAO said the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the EPA have improved cleanup efforts — hiring more staff, requiring mining companies to do better environmental assessments and getting companies to provide better financial assurances they will clean up past contamination.
Despite those improvements, the GAO said, “the fact remains that after years of study and millions of dollars spent, the agencies and mine operators are still years away from fully understanding the extent of contamination in the area and many more years away from completing actual mine cleanup.”
WHAT WILL SIMPLOT GET?
Hoyt, of the Yellowstone Coalition, said he doubts a scientifically defensible process will lead to a dramatically higher selenium limit in the creeks. Even if DEQ does raise the selenium limits, Hoyt said, he’s not sure it will help Simplot much. The group’s own sampling has found trout in the creek with selenium levels in their flesh that well exceed Simplot’s proposed higher limits.
If the limit is raised, Simplot would have an easier target that could save it millions of dollars in cleanup costs. But Simplot would be better served, Hoyt said, by helping speed the cleanup and getting the federal government to pay its share.
“From my perspective, the federal government is in part responsible because they allowed this to happen,” Hoyt said.
A federal judge agreed in 2011, ruling in a preliminary decision in a lawsuit brought by Agrium that the federal government was “an owner, arranger and operator” of phosphate mines, which are on federal land. For decades, the federal government mandated land-reclamation techniques at the mines that accelerated selenium runoff.
Eventually, total cleanup costs could reach $500 million to $750 million, Hoyt said. And an ambitious cleanup could mean Idaho jobs, like those dedicated to cleaning up decades of nuclear waste at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory.
“Hopefully this will jump-start some cleanup,” Hoyt said.
Source: Associated Press