Phosphate mining and our hope for change

By Marv Hoyt

With the ushering in of the new decade, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition has high hopes for change in Southeast Idaho’s phosphate mining industry.

Last June, facing the possibility of an adverse ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the J.R. Simplot Co. threatened to layoff 114 employees at the Smoky Canyon Mine on the Idaho-Wyoming border and Pocatello’s Don fertilizer plant. At that time, they pointed the finger of blame at GYC and the conservation community.

Lost amid the sound bites about imperiled jobs in Pocatello and Afton, Wyo., was the grim story the phosphate mining industry doesn’t want on the front page: Past decades have provided much evidence of phosphate mining poisoning the lands and waters of Southeast Idaho.

So, what has happened since then?

First, just as Simplot was threatening layoffs if the court decided the company had to clean up its Smoky Canyon pollution, new research on the effects of selenium released from that mine revealed that trout populations were being devastated in the Sage Creek watershed and downstream in Crow Creek. The report shows that selenium was causing declines of 20 percent and higher in trout populations. Just to be clear, Simplot’s own consultants carried out the research and wrote this report.

Also, in June the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality reported the sad news that now the entire Blackfoot River and more than 90 miles of its tributaries — nearly 40 percent of the   perennial stream miles in the Upper Blackfoot River watershed, along with their fish populations — are showing evidence of being poisoned by selenium.

And then last August at least 18 head of cattle died from eating selenium-contaminated forage at the Simplot owned Lanes Creek Mine, virtually at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River. These fatalities only added to the tally of hundreds of head of livestock already killed by selenium contamination.

At the end of the summer, Agrium, a Canadian-based mining company responsible for at least five Superfund mine sites, filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that the U.S. Forest Service, and the American taxpayer, foot the bill for cleaning up two of its Superfund sites.

Finally, just before the holidays, Agrium laid off 118 mineworkers at its Dry Valley Mine, but not because of any actions taken by the conservation community. The company claimed the layoffs were due to a surplus of ore, but doubtless the fact that the price for phosphate-based fertilizer is half what it was a year ago had something to do with the layoff decision.

But all is not doom and gloom for the lands, waters and wildlife that have been so severely harmed by phosphate mining. In August, the Bureau of Land Management released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Monsanto’s proposed Blackfoot Bridge Mine on the banks of the Blackfoot River. Before considering Monsanto’s mine permit application, the BLM required for the first time that a mining company must incorporate a geosynthetic liner in its mine plan to protect water resources, or the mine would not be permitted.

When the BLM asked for comments on the Blackfoot Bridge Mine proposal, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, while appreciative of the BLM’s efforts to ensure that no additional selenium is released into the Blackfoot River from the mine, pointed out that there are still concerns about the proposal that must be fixed before any permit is issued. Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent the BLM detailed and compelling comments on the   weaknesses of the mine proposal.

Responding to the comments, the Bureau of Land Management has delayed the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed mine. Initially the agency planned to release the final EIS for the proposed mine in early 2010.  However, after reviewing the comments the BLM is taking a much-needed second look and reassessing what it will take before they can issue Monsanto a permit to mine in such an environmentally sensitive area.

Just as important, the EPA has rightfully reinserted itself in the cleanup of the 17 Superfund sites the phosphate mining industry has created over the past five decades in Southeast Idaho. We’re hopeful this will soon lead to real on-the-ground clean-up actions that will reverse the trend of selenium poisoning in more and more of the area’s streams.

Soon the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether to allow Simplot’s Smoky Canyon Mine to continue to severely damage the streams near the mine. In our opinion those waterways are in fact being poisoned.
We are optimistic that the court will halt the mine expansion until cleanup is assured.

So, from GYC’s perspective, we see hope for Southeast Idaho’s lands, waters and wildlife in the new decade, and that will benefit everyone who lives and works in this special part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Marv Hoyt is Idaho director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He is based in Idaho Falls.