A new study supports environmentalists’ call for keeping federal limits on selenium in the Blackfoot River watershed at current or even lower levels than they are now.
But the group touting the study continues to undercut its credibility by leaning on a story about two-headed trout it acknowledges adds little to the science — but is too attractive to leave out of the press release.
Selenium levels in the Southeast Idaho stream consistently exceeded even the industry-proposed guidelines for protection of fish and wildlife, said Justin Conley, from North Carolina State University.
“It is decidedly clear that the potential for adverse impacts of (selenium) exposure on survival and reproduction of (Yellowstone cutthroat trout) and other fish and wildlife are significantly greater in streams impacted by active and inactive phosphate mining,” Conley wrote.
Earlier this year, J.R.Simplot Co. asked the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to approve higher limits on selenium in Sage and Crow creeks below its Smoky Canyon 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 is still studying the issue, awaiting more information.
The new study, “Evaluation of Selenium in Biotic and Abiotic Ecosystem Components of the Blackfoot River Watershed,” comes from a compilation of all available data collected from 1997 to 2011 by federal and state agencies, several phosphate mining companies, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which released it Thursday.
The press release follows one issued a week ago from a collaborative group of mining companies, the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited about their joint restoration efforts in the Blackfoot River, independent of the selenium issue.
“This report is yet another reason for the mining companies to quit stonewalling and start cleaning up their mine sites,” said Marv Hoyt, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Idaho director. “Rather than attempting to green-wash themselves by paying to screen irrigation ditches, the companies should address the real threat to Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the Blackfoot River watershed — toxic selenium contamination from active and inactive phosphate mines.”
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition press release seeks to play on the publicity it got earlier this year from a two-headed brown trout fry that 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. The picture of the trout was in The New York Times, and Comedy Central did a mock report on it in June.
The photo was one of several dozen in an appendix to the 2,070-page study Simplot did. 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.
Those facts were left out of the press release which stated flatly: “Southeast Idaho’s phosphate mining district — which produced the two-headed trout last year — already has 17 federal Superfund sites where industry cleanup is lagging or nonexistent.”
But the tiny brown trout was not produced in Idaho. It was produced in a lab just like the other two-headed cutthroat whose parents came from Montana.
When I called Hoyt, he acknowledged the fact that all fish populations have some mutations and that the fish actually were raised in a laboratory in Wyoming. But he said it wasn’t the point of Conley’s study or the press release, which led off describing the area as “southeast Idaho’s notorious two-headed trout district.”
“The issue of deformities in the report was minor,” Hoyt said.
Simplot spokesman David Cuoio said the company had no comment.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484