Toxic-time-bomb spawned two-headed Brown trout in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
By Patrick Porgans
Selenium laden toxic-time bomb triggered by 50-years of Phosphate mining in Northwest U.S. Experts claim two-headed trout and dead livestock portend hundreds of years of surface and groundwater contamination.
The toxic mines are within the 350,000 square kilometers of the Western Phosphate Field; located in five-northern tier states, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. The epicenter of the time-bomb is in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in Southeastern Idaho and bordering western Wyoming.
It’s official! This is not a fish story. The two-headed wild Brown trout depicted in the photographs, spawned in the Salt River sub-unit of the upper Snake River drainage watershed, which is within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Snake River is one of the major rivers of the West, flowing from Wyoming across Idaho before converging with the Columbia River in Washington. The basin covers all of Grand Teton National Park, as well as a portion of Yellowstone National Park.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials claim that the phosphate mine sites are leaking selenium, cadmium, nickel and zinc into rivers that flow to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Unlike in most states, EPA has direct authority to administer and enforce the provisions of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) in Idaho.
According to government and mining industry reports, federal agencies, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), along with multinational mining conglomerates activities detonated the selenium-laden toxic-time bomb, spawning two-headed Brown trout.
Conversely, Federal regulators identified J.R. Simplot, Company, Rhodia LLC, Astaris’ (formerly FMC,) P4 Production, LLC, a subsidiary of Monsanto, and Nu-West Industries Inc, (Agrium) as the “potentially responsible parties” in the government-sanctioned mining operations, predominantly on public lands, that have spawned two-headed Brown trout within the Phosphate Field.
Ironically, the two-headed fish data was furnished by J.R. Simplot Company in its bid in 2009 to obtain a site-specific criterion for Hoopes Spring and its downstream waters including Sage Creek and Cow Creek upstream of the Idaho and Wyoming State line. Hoopes Spring is located in Sage Valley near the Simplot Smokey Canyon phosphate Mine in southeastern Idaho. Discovery of the new breed of fish is credited to phosphate-industry consultants’ reports.
Mining Consultant Reports Document Declines in Trout Populations
It was in the 2009 Simplot’s consultants documented the two-headed fish phenomenon. Government sources claim that the delay in their becoming aware of the two-headed fish, resulted from Simplot and its consultant’s reluctance to release an additional set of appendices, and an “Annex Report”, which purportedly contain the raw data pertinent to the trout deformities, which appear to be as high as in the 40 percentile.
Research on the effects of selenium from the Simplot’s Smokey Canyon Mine revealed that trout populations were being devastated in Sage Creek watershed and downstream in Crow Creek. According to Marv Hoyt, Idaho Director, Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), to be clear, it was Simplot’s consultant’s report that showed that selenium was causing declines of 20 percent and higher in trout population, in this reach of the watershed.
Hoyt stated, in June 2009 the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality reported that 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 were listed on EPA’s 303(d) list. Scientists confirmed that the fish populations within this watershed, and elsewhere – are showing signs of being poisoned by selenium.
Senator Barbara Boxer Enters the Fray
Yesterday, after months of scientifically-peer reviews, of the mining consultant’s report(s), the director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) quietly released its “Technical Review Package”, not only confirming the presence of two-headed fish, in the Greater Yellowstone region, but also identifying selenium poisoning as the cause of the deformities.
The director sent the “package” over to Senator Boxer (D-CA), Chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works (EPW). Boxer’s committee has responsibility for legislation related to climate change, flood protection, drinking and wastewater treatment systems, the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), and some oversight over agencies such as the EPA.
Reportedly, it was the Senator that initiated the action to seek the expert technical assistance of the FWS in matters pertaining to selenium to peer-review Simplot’s proposal for a site-specific selenium criterion for its Smokey Canyon Mine. Because selenium is listed as a chemical of concern, it is regulated under the CWA, which is administered by EPA. No word as of yet from Boxer’s office. The contact person at EPW is Bettina Poirier, staff director, at (202) 224-8832.
The FWS assigned Dr. Joseph Skorupa; one of the its’ most experienced selenium scientists, the task of reviewing Simplot’s consultant’s report on the proposed site-specific selenium criterion.
During his review, Dr. Skorupa discovered a one-line reference to the deformed brown trout fry, which had been briefly referred to in the 1,200 page report and selected appendices provided by Simplot. Dr. Skorupa identified a second set of appendices, to the Simplot report. It was in this second set of appendices which provided a list of figures and tables that enabled Dr. Skorupa to discern and estimate the levels and ranges of deformities.
It was that piece of information that led him to pursue the supplemental Annex Report, which reportedly contain crucial raw data relative to the deformity studies. Simplot has not provided Dr. Skorupa with that report. Reportedly, EPA is currently looking into the matter. The Annex Report was purportedly written by a professor at the Colorado State University; consulting on Simplot’s site-specific criterion.
Unbeknownst to the mining industry, Simplot’s end-run to lower the selenium standard, may have triggered an opening to shed light on the extent and gravity of the government-mining-induced selenium disaster in the Phosphate Field.
Until the FWS experts were brought into the picture, data collection and interpretation for Simplot’s consultant’s reports were not given a “hard” look, but rather merely superficial reviews that did not delve into the several different layers of buried appendices where the crucial scientific details could be examined.
The findings contained in the Simplot’s consultant’s site-specific selenium report had been previously reviewed and essentially approved by other federal, state, and local government entities involved in the phosphate-mining selenium time-bomb; critics doubt they were clueless.
Although those government scientists involved in the peer review(s), do not believe that Simplot’s consultants fudged the data, they assert that they went astray on the analysis and interpretation of the data.
An exhausted independent review of the entire matter, conducted by Planetary Solutionaries former sponsor, Porgans & Associates, Inc., indicated that the CERCLA process, procedures and protocols, were skewed, in favor of the mining industry. Furthermore, legitimate concerns raised throughout the CERCLA process, cast doubts as to the validity of the collection, analyses, and interpretation of the data, a great deal which was conducted by the mining company’s consultants. Also, by initiating the CERCLA process, it was agreed that the government would not take enforcement action for water quality and other related violations.
Capitol-beltway insiders, claim that the FWS will not be able to keep this politically charged two-headed hot-potato under wrap; especially, in an election year, and, nothing short of a miraculous “Hail-Mary pass” will do. In the interim, as the contamination goes on, the General Accounting Office (GAO) is reportedly in-the-field conducting an inquiry into the phosphate matter.
This week, the FWS is quietly posting information regarding the “Technical Review Package” on its contaminant website, purportedly stating that the site-specific selenium criterion being proposed by J.R. Simplot Company, as referred to in the consultant’s report, as being “indefensible”.
Critics contend that the FWS opted not to have a media blitz, and, bury the two-headed fish disaster with the “Godfather’s - Lou Cabrazi” who “sleeps with the fish”. For more information contact FWS’ Bryan Arroyo, Assistant Director, Fisheries and Habitat Conservation (202) 208-6394.
Toxic-Time Bomb Came As No Surprise: Predicted By Government Selenium Expert
Oddly enough, 13 years ago, a government scientist predicted that the toxic-biological-time bomb from mining phosphate was destined to go off. Although alarming, word of the two-headed Brown trout came as no surprise to Dr. A. Dennis Lemly, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, under USDA’s jurisdiction.
Dr. Lemly completed a report, back in 1999, entitled, “Selenium Impacts on Fish: An Insidious Time-bomb” resulting from open-pit phosphate mining. In that report, he predicted, “If the threshold for selenium toxicity is exceeded, the time-bomb explodes and a cascade of events is set in motion that will result in major ecosystem disruption. Because of an escalation in human activities [mining and agriculture] that promote the introduction and bioaccumulation of selenium in aquatic systems, coupled with the insidious, almost stealthy nature of its toxic effects on fish, I regard selenium as a time-bomb”.
Dr. Lemly went on to say, “Because of bioaccumulation, the higher the risk from selenium, the lower the amount allowed to be discharged must be to prevent harm to fish and wildlife. The selenium contamination already taking place in the Project Area will persist for hundreds of years. As the result of this contamination – i.e., selenium discharges that have already occurred and are continuing, we are informed and believe that fish and elk in this area have been and are exhibiting teratogenic effects”.
Selenium Chemical of Concern, Bioaccumulation Magnifies Becomes Unmanageable
Toxic selenium and other heavy metals are also exposed during open-pit mining and dumped in waste rock piles, where they can concentrate and transported to pollute surface and groundwater sources; including natural springs.
Elevated levels of selenium have also been documented in southeastern Idaho’s Blackfoot River watershed; another tributary to the Snake River. More than 20 tributaries feed into the Snake River in the eastern portion of the Snake River Basin. The largest tributaries in this area include: Henrys Fork, Teton River, Falls River, Big Wood River, Blackfoot River, Big Lost River, and Portneuf River.
The upper Blackfoot River watershed receives drainage from 11 of 15 mines that have extracted ore from.
Phosphoria Formation, three of which are presently active, according to Dr. Theresa Presser, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist. According to sources citing EPA information; Monsanto’s three phosphate mines have been declared federal Superfund sites, while the fourth mine was reportedly in violation of the provisions of the CWA.
Selenium (Se) is a chemical of concern at many locations across North America and elsewhere, and site-specific conditions are important when evaluating its bioaccumulation and effects in aquatic ecosystems.
Because of bioaccumulation, selenium discharges do not translate into environmental impacts in a 1 to 1 fashion. That is, a 1% increase in selenium does not result in a 1% increase in toxic effects. Rather, as A. Dennis Lemly, Ph.D., a U.S. Forest Service scientist who is an expert on selenium in aquatic environments, points out in his comments on the DEIS, a 1% increase in selenium in the Project Area “may translate to a 1,000% percent increase in toxic impacts,” because of bioaccumulation.
According to Dr. Edgar A. Imhoff, a geo-hydrologist, “…once selenium is loaded into the environment—by the very nature of how it migrates through a variety of media and magnifies in moving up a ladder of biota—the toxicity problem becomes almost unsolvable”. Dr. Imhoff, now retired, was a senior executive in the Department of the Interior, and served as regional Director of the Office of Surface mining.
In 1975, the western phosphate field in Southeastern Idaho was estimated to contain approximately one billion tons, about a quarter of the U.S. reserves (USGS, 1977). The phosphate reserves of Southeastern Idaho are about 80 percent located on Federal land administered by the U.S. Forest Service, Caribou-Targhee National Forest, and Bureau of Land Management; there are smaller amounts on State or Tribal leases and private land.
Toxic Selenium Levels Rising – 17 Superfund Sites - Monsanto Only Company Charged with Violating CWA
In 1977, the federal agencies issued a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement developed to analyze universal impacts of phosphate mining in Southeastern Idaho reported that phosphate rock had average selenium concentrations of 30 part per million (ppm), with a maximum concentration of 800 ppm, while mudstones were documented with an average concentrations of 14 ppm and maximum concentration 1,500 ppm, according to USGS.
Independent composite water quality samples tested for selenium levels from springs and snowmelt, taken from areas where the horses and sheep died from selenium poisoning revealed selenium levels 6,000 to 25,000 times higher than “normal”. The samples were analyzed at government licensed laboratories.
The applicable standard required by the Clean Water Act section 304(a) aquatic life chronic criterion of 0.005mg/L or 5ppb (parts per billion).
Scientists say at least 15 streams in southeastern Idaho exceed selenium standards, up from six in 2002. In May 2009, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality added Sheep Creek, a Blackfoot River tributary being polluted by South Rasmussen, to its list of waterways that don’t meet state standards due to selenium contamination.
Monsanto’s mining for phosphate at its South Rasmussen Mine released toxic selenium into the Blackfoot River watershed since 2002, according to EPA officials. The mine is under lease from DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In 2001, when BLM official approved the lease for the South Rasmussen Mine, reportedly stating that Monsanto’s mine wasn’t likely to contaminate surrounding waterways. Subsequently, EPA officials claimed to have found “very high levels of selenium” flowing from the mine’s Horseshoe Dump; even in dry weather; in violation of the CWA, according to the agency. In 2007 Monsanto was order by EPA to stop releasing selenium-tainted discharges from the dump.
Rasmussen Mine is among 17 other phosphate mines in eastern Idaho designated as superfund sites. Reportedly, Monsanto uses the phosphate as a primary ingredient in their Round-up herbicide, designed to complement its genetically engineered “Round-up Ready” seeds, which, has caught the attention of indigenous people residing deep within the Amazon Jungle, who have expressed grave concerns about Monsanto.
To its credit, Monsanto has been working with EPA to abate the discharges and to meet the selenium standard. However, although the violations were issued years ago, it is yet-to-be determined if Monsanto’s is compliant. According to Eva De Maria, an enforcement official in EPA’s Seattle regional office; we won’t know the answer to that question until this spring when it obtains water quality samples from the mine-dump site.
When asked how many other enforcement actions EPA took against other phosphate mine operators, De Maria claims that Monsanto is the only one she was aware of. Follow up contact was made with EPA’s regional counsel’s office, to confirm De Maria’s claim.
Enforcement Actions Held in Abeyance in Fear of Congressional Reprisals - Questioned
Environmental advocates allege that one of the reasons for all of the “duck and cover” delays in getting certain agencies to fully exercise their regulatory authorities, is because they fear reprisal from Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Chairman of the House Interior and the Environment Appropriations Subcommittee that writes EPA’s budget. Simpson sponsored legislation in the previous session to cut EPA’s budget, purportedly in an attempt to hamstring the agency’s regulatory power, including oversight of greenhouse gases.
The failed GOP-drafted bill would have limit protection of bighorn sheep, end new funding to list endangered species and cuts EPA’s budget by nearly one-third. The bill would have cut 2012 spending for the Department of the Interior, the EPA and related agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, by $2.1 billion.
Historical data and official records attest to the fact that selenium contamination and mobilization had been long recognized as a contaminant of concern. However, it was not until the widespread death of livestock, beginning in 1996, that selenium poisoning was identified as the source and cause of death.
Although the extent and magnitude of this biological disaster in-the-making has yet to be “scientifically” quantified, the experts claim it will take several hundred years to stabilize the selenium that has already been disturbed, stored and/or is mobilizing throughout the watersheds; causing area-wide contamination of surface and subsurface waters and thousands of acres of range and forest lands. Critics contend that under any other circumstances poisoning the waters of the U.S. to this extent would be viewed as an act of terrorism.
Status of Endless Delay, Plethora of Studies, Leading up to Blame-Game Tactics - Contamination Continues
The record indicates that after 15 years of CERLCA process, a plethora of reports, at least 50 by the U.S. Geological Survey alone, numerous meetings, and endless rhetoric, contrary to the government and mining industry’s assurances, the record indicates that no real remediation has occurred. Although some minor containment actions are planned; the situation is now at critical mass. In the interim government and industry worked out deals to expand phosphate mining in Southeastern Idaho.
Officials contend that a lack of enforcement was because of earlier actions, back in 1997 demonstrated that the companies and their government partners were anxious to address the problem. Federal and state officials asserted that they intervened in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) process to ensure that the selenium contamination would be dealt with thoroughly and expeditiously. “Delays resulting from endless debate would have been counterproductive and led to public distrust of both the agencies and the phosphate mining industry. Rapid resolution to bring contaminant releases into compliance were considered necessary to protect a critical national resource,” according to Jeff Jones”, Forest Service engineer and selenium advisor.
“Government intentions from the beginning were not to issue citations or to damage the industry but to solve the problem rapidly. Rapid resolution to bring the contaminant releases into compliance where considered necessary to protect a critical natural resource,” according to Jones.
Contrary to government and industry assurances, a thorough review of their “performance” and “actions“, indicate that no actual plan to contain or remediate the existing sources of massive selenium contamination have been implemented.
Blowback and Fallout, After 15 Years of Studies, Mine Expansions – No Remediation!
Selenosis (selenium poisoning) of horses that pastured in Dry Valley prompted agency and public concern that selenium releases from phosphate mining was apparently an environmental and potential public health concern. A preliminary assessment of the South Maybe Mine, located in Southeastern Idaho, in 1997 led the Forest Service to exercise their delegated authority to initiate action under the CERLA action.
While the debate continues, very little, if any, on the ground containment or remediation has occurred since the initial report of livestock deaths and initiating of a CERCLA action(s), back in 1997, when government and the mining industry have assured the public that they would deal with the source of the selenium contamination fairly and quickly. Unfortunately, the record indicates that has yet to happen.
Although the reports and data provided to the public by the government and mining companies appear to be reassuring; all efforts to date have failed. If they stopped mining now, it is estimated that it will take about 250 years to get a handle on the selenium contamination that has already been unleashed in the area.
Government’s once friendly relationship has been put to the test, as the mining companies are now suing the government for allowing them to mine phosphate in the Field, and failing to advise them of water quality data indicating the high levels of the contamination.
Agrium, a Canadian-based mining company responsible for at least five Superfund mine sites, filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that the Forest Service, and American taxpayer, foot the bill for cleaning up two of its Superfund sites. There are at least 17 superfund sites in southeastern Idaho, resulting from phosphate mining.
Phosphorous, is an important element for agriculture and chemical industrial uses worldwide. The United States contains approximately 4.2 billion tons of phosphate ore, about 14 percent of the world’s known reserves, according to a 1997 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report.
Under authority of the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act, the Bureau of Land Management administers the 84 existing Federal phosphate mineral leases on about 46,000 acres of land and cooperates with the Forest Service, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, and other Federal and State agencies in evaluating and mitigating the environmental consequences of the mining.
Fortune 500 type of mining companies, lease public land, which they mine, for pennies on the dollar, and apparently amass fortunes in the process. Reportedly, J.R. Simplot, Company, had at one time, under government lease more than 3 million acres of public land. J.R. Simplot, now deceased, was listed among the richest 100 billionaires in the United States. J.R. was also known as the “Potato and computer-chip King”. The J.R. Simplot Company was also ranked as Arimeca’s 67th largest private company in 2010.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., the two-headed fish has become an extremely politically charged “hot potato”; and had been in the on-again, off-again mode, as government scientists continued their probe.
Second Government Detonated Selenium Laden Time-Bomb –Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge was First
This is the second major time-bomb set off by a DOI agency; the Bureau of Reclamation detonated the original time-bomb at the federal Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, in the early 1980s involving the death and deformities of an estimated 15,000 migratory birds.
A similar script that was used by federal contractors in the Kesterson disaster; the best defense is a good offense; in the interim, this may spell the beginning of the end for wild-west mining practices on public lands at the taxpayer’s expense. The move by the mining companies is similar to the script that Department of the Interior faced in California, when the federal water contractors successfully sued for the government’s failure to provide drainage facilities for the federal Central Valley Project (CVP).
Paradoxically, there are provisions in the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act that appropriates about 50 percent of all of mineral and oil revenues, derived from those leases, to the Department of the Interior for use in Bureau of Reclamation projects.
The government-industry induced Phosphate Field disaster parallels the early 1980s government-induced disaster at the “Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge”, what was then viewed as the largest single-wildlife disaster in American History; causing the death and deformities of thousands of migratory birds.
Dr. Imhoff’s experience with the quixotic behavior of selenium began in the San Joaquin Valley of California, in the 1980s, when the government-induced selenium-time bomb went off at Kesterson. There again, that Kesterson toxic-time bomb had been predicted 13 years before it went off, by Gene Marine, in a 1969 Ramparts magazine article.
Federal officials and their water contractors have yet to devise a viable way to treat and/or remediate, what amounts to train loads of toxic selenium being dumped into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Bay Estuary; which, as a result of government projects, and failure to act, is on the brink of collapse.
Similar stall and delay tactics used in the multi-million dollar Kesterson wildlife crisis have since been adopted by the mining-industry and its supporters in their attempts to defuse political fallout and public-opinion blowback resulting from the time-bomb.
As it turns out there is not only a nexus between the Phosphate Field selenium-laden disaster and the Kesterson disaster; they were primarily the result of a “buy-functional government” and unaccountable entities in the mining and agricultural sectors. Skeptics argue that one thing appears to be for sure, based on government’s performance, most of the people living today will be long dead before either the government or the mining industry gets around to cleaning up their mess; of course, one way or another, ultimately at the public expense.
California’s San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin is Being Prime for the Third Selenium Time-Bomb
In the interim, Boxer’s critics are quick to point out that she should be as concerned about the massive amount of toxic selenium discharges being dumped daily into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Bay by Bureau of Reclamation water contractors; Reclamation is under the authority of the Department of the Interior. In fact, selenium discharges from federal water projects are responsible to a significant degree for putting the San Francisco Bay Estuary and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta on the brink of yet another major ecological disaster; which have cost the taxpayers billions of dollars in a failed attempt to correct that unresolved government-induced selenium crisis.
Patrick Porgans is with the research firm Porgans and Associates.