Feel like eating trout – downstream from mining operations?

Photographs of variously mutated brown trout were relegated to an appendix of a scientific study commissioned by the J. R. Simplot Company, whose mining operations have polluted nearby creeks in southern Idaho. The trout were the offspring of local fish caught in the wild that had been spawned in the laboratory. Some had two heads; others had facial, fin and egg deformities.

Yet the company’s report concluded that it would be safe to allow selenium — a metal byproduct of mining that is toxic to fish and birds — to remain in area creeks at higher levels than are now permitted under regulatory guidelines. The company is seeking a judgment to that effect from the Environmental Protection Agency. After receiving a draft report that ran hundreds of pages, an E.P.A. review described the research as “comprehensive” and seemed open to its findings, which supported the selenium variance for Simplot’s Smoky Canyon mine.

But when other federal scientists and some environmentalists learned of the two-headed brown trout, they raised a ruckus, which resulted in further scientific review that found the company’s research wanting.

Now, several federal agencies, an array of environmental groups and one of the nation’s largest private companies are at odds over selenium contamination from the Idaho phosphate mine, the integrity of the company’s research, and what its effect will be on future regulatory policy.

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…

After hearing about the mutant trout, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the Democrat who heads the chamber’s Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and vet the mining company’s scientific research and conclusions.

The service’s review, released last month, was scathing, describing the study as “biased” and “highly questionable.” Joseph Skorupa, the service’s selenium expert, cited a “lack of valid field controls” and the absence of any analysis of the selenium’s impact on reptiles, birds or the 12 other types of fish in the creeks’ waters. Most troubling, he wrote, was that the researchers systematically undermeasured the rate of serious deformities in baby fish, which were pictured only in an appendix…He estimated…that the level of selenium that Simplot says causes a 20 percent rate of deformity actually causes a deformity rate of a minimum of 70 percent of all fry…

The metal can also affect human health, with symptoms including hair and fingernail loss and numbness in fingers and toes. It has been regulated in drinking water since the 1970s…

The company submitted a final report with the pictures of the deformed trout to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which must make an initial determination on the exemption. The E.P.A. will have final approval.

That federal agencies differ with one another on science and strictness isn’t a surprise. That a mining company owned by agribusiness wants limits on a toxic compound reset – to a level double and triple the range of existing standards shouldn’t surprise anyone either. Industry beancounters are compensated for saving corporate dollars – not civilian lives.

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