This is a story about mutant two-headed trout in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and two reports about those trout and the selenium that poisoned them. The first report was compiled by the J.R. Simplot Company, owners of Smoky Canyon Mine (see photo), an open pit phosphate mine in Idaho. For years the mine had been discharging selenium (video of toxic dangers) into tributaries of the Snake River, a world-class trout stream, on such a large scale it had been named a Superfund site. Simplot had already paid 3.5 million in restoration costs but they were still miles short of a complete clean up. The selenium — a metal by-product of mining that’s toxic to fish and birds — still measured 70 parts per billion in nearby waterways, a whopping 14 times over the federal limit. So Simplot called in consultants who compiled a report to show the mine’s selenium run-off was in fact quite safe and that allowing selenium levels to remain far above the national standard would not significantly impact the water or fish.

The EPA labeled their report as “Outstanding quality.” Really.

When, however, environmental scientists gave the report a sharper look, they found buried in an appendix photos of something they’d never seen before: two-headed trout (top photos). Additional photos showed baby trout with facial, fin and egg deformities caused by selenium pollution in the waters surrounding Smoky Canyon.

The second report compiled by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced Simplot’s study “biased” and “highly questionable.” The service’s selenium expert, Joseph Skorupa pointed out the report failed to include raw data that would allow independent analysis of the deformity rate caused by Smoky Canyon’s level of selenium contamination. While Simplot itself reported a fish deformity rate of 20%, Dr. Skorupa’s own estimate of the deformity rate was closer to 70% — far bigger and with far more serious implications than Simplot’s estimate.

In addition to Simplot’s request to maintain high levels of selenium at Smoky Canyon, the company is attempting to buy 1,100 acres of PUBLIC LAND from the Bureau of Land Management for its proposed Dairy Syncline Phosphate Mine. The mine would include a gigantic toxic tailings impoundment (AKA “mine dumps, slimes, refuse, or slickens” according to Wikipedia). In opposition to this move, The Greater Yellowstone Coalition points out:

  • Over 600 head of livestock in the Blackfoot Watershed have been killed by selenium contamination since 1996.
  • The area has already been severely scarred by the operation of over 31 phosphate mines  (photos). Seventeen (more than HALF) of those open-pit mines, including Smoky Canyon Mine, are contaminated Superfund sites.
  • By 2008, 151 miles of streams in this phosphate-mining district had been poisoned by selenium. Four years later it’s not pleasant to imagine how many more miles of stream pollution have been added to this list.
  • Rich in beauty and biological diversity, the wild-lands where the new mining would take place are home to hundreds of species of wildlife.

After 15 years of assurances and studies, the mining industry and government agencies have failed to  come up with a plan of any kind to contain or clean up the area’s massive selenium contamination. It’s too late now for those two-headed trout. Is it also too late for the future trout and wildlife of Yellowstone?

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