Why were photographs of two-headed brown trout tucked away in the appendix of a scientific study commissioned by the J. R. Simplot Company, which has polluted creeks in southern Idaho with its phosphate mining operations?
The report was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency to review; the company was seeking a judgment about whether it would be allowable for levels of selenium, a metal byproduct of mining, to remain in creeks at higher rates than current regulations allowed. Selenium is toxic to fish and to birds but the EPA, having reviewed the several-hundred page report, said that it was “comprehensive” and seemed poised to grant the selenium variance.
Scientists and environmentalist raised an outcry: As the New York Times details, selenium is one of the pollutants found at 200 of the 1,294 toxic Superfund sites. Selenium’s effects on wildlife have long been known but the EPA and federal agencies have yet to rule on what level should be prohibited.
After hearing of the concerns, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to examine Simplot’s report. The service has issued a review describing the mining company’s findings as both “biased” and highly questionable” and lacking analysis of selenium’s effects on reptiles, birds or the 12 other types of fish. Of greatest concern was that the report’s researchers had apparently “systematically undermeasured” the rate of deformities in baby fish.
In fact, Joseph Skorupa, the selenium expert for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that the level of selenium that Simplot said would cause a 20 percent deformity rate actually caused a rate of a minimum of 70 percent.
Selenium has been regulated in drinking water since the 1970s. In humans, it causes hair and fingernail loss and numbness in the fingers and toes. In aquatic animals, the effects are far worse:
…the metal is far more dangerous to aquatic egg-bearing animals like fish, birds and reptiles — a fact revealed in the early 1980s when excessive selenium in agricultural runoff resulted in fatal deformities in waterfowl at the Kesterson Reservoir in California, including missing eyes and feet, deformed beaks, legs and wings, and protruding brains.
As David Janz, an aquatic toxicology professor at the University of Saskatchewan who participated in a peer review of the Fish and Wildlife Service study, says in the New York Times, “In my research, I have seen lots of malformed baby fish, but never one with two heads.” While noting that such deformities “do occur naturally in the wild,” Janz says that he thinks selenium pollution is the culprit.
Aside from saying that the additional review by the Fish and Wildlife Service is “totally outside the regulatory process,” Simplot has offered no comment.
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Image of the Smoky Canyon Phosphate Mine by Sky Truth