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Phosphate Mining: A cause of deadly toxins in Greater Yellowstone

Latest News: Yet another report continues to show the increasing threats posed by selenium in southwest Greater Yellowstone streams due to phosphate mining. Tom Myers, a hydrologic consultant from Reno, Nev., in a report for the Journal of Hydrology, writes that, "Extensive phosphate mining in the Blackfoot watershed of Idaho (USA) has substantially increased the selenium (Se) concentration in the river during both runoff and baseflow when groundwater discharge dominates."

A report released Nov. 1 (see summary here) by North Carolina State University doctoral candidate Justin Conley confirmed what is already known: one of the last and largest populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Idaho is in trouble due to high selenium concentrations in the Blackfoot River watershed.

Overview: Phosphate mining in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem occurs in the upper Blackfoot River and Salt River watersheds, an area of vast roadless forests known for its impressive diversity of wildlife. It has scarred the landscape and dumped poisonous selenium into area streams in substantial amounts, killing horses, livestock and wildlife, and ruining habitat of the imperiled Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Most notably, the Salt and Blackfoot river watersheds are home to two of the three largest remaining populations of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in Idaho  ̶  and a large percentage of the entire remaining population in Greater Yellowstone. The effects of land uses such as phosphate mining in this remote area can and do ripple across the ecosystem.

In recent years, it was reported that two-headed trout and dead sheep are the result of area mines. Selenium contamination from Monsanto’s closed Henry Mine killed 95 sheep, as reported by Monsanto on Oct. 12, 2012. 95 sheep died at its Henry Mine Superfund site from eating native vegetation contaminated by selenium that enters the environment during phosphate mining operations. For more than a decade, Monsanto has maintained that its phosphate mines, by design or luck, were free of the selenium contamination that plagues other phosphate mines in southeast Idaho. This recent news dramatically showcases the dangers of toxic selenium in southwest Greater Yellowstone's environment.

In news accounts, Monsanto blamed the sheep for being in the wrong place. The company also blamed the plants for being too absorbant. Rather than blaming this incidence on trespass grazing Monsanto should clean up its Superfund mine sites. We will continue to press Monsanto to clean up its Superfund sites.

Elsewhere in the phosphate mining district of southeast Idaho, Nu-West Mining, Inc., the Canadian-based mining company responsible for much of the selenium contamination in the Blackfoot River watershed, wants to open another phosphate mine in Greater Yellowstone. Read our comments about this proposal here. Thousands more of our supporters submitted comments to oppose this mine by the Sept. 17, 2012, deadline.

Why? Because fish from East Mill Creek, which is being poisoned by Nu-West’s North Maybe Canyon Mine, have selenium concentrations more than twice the amount already causing high rates of deformities in trout fry from Sage Creek and Crow Creek, including the two-headed trout reported earlier this year. Downstream, Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the Blackfoot River have the same selenium concentrations as those causing the high rates of Sage and Crow creek deformities.

Nu-West’s proposes to develop the Husky 1-North Dry Ridge Mine adjacent to two of its Superfund mine sites even while the company steadfastly refuses to clean either of them up. This mine would industrialize hundreds of acres within the Dry Ridge and Schmid Peak inventoried roadless areas. These are Forest Service lands once protected from mining by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. However, that changed when the Bush Administration allowed Idaho to pick which national forest lands in Idaho would be protected and which would be opened to logging, road building, and phosphate mining. While the Idaho Roadless Rule allows for phosphate mining in roadless areas, the 2001 Roadless Rule, the law of the land for all other states, does not permit such incursions.

The Husky 1 mine would also intrude into the Blackfoot River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) managed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to benefit fish and wildlife. Unfortunately, phosphate mining is incompatible with those goals. In fact, Yellowstone cutthroat trout that reside in the Blackfoot River within the WMA are already struggling, in large part due to selenium released by Nu-West’s Superfund mine sites.

Project Goals: To ensure cleanup of the 17 phosphate mine Superfund sites, halt future expansion until existing Superfund sited have been cleaned up, and prohibit mine development in any roadless areas.

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OVERVIEW
  • There are 17 federal Superfund sites related to phosphate mining in Greater Yellowstone.
  • More than 600 head of livestock have died due to mining contamination.
  • More than 150 miles of streams in the Salt, Blackfoot, and Bear River watersheds have been poisoned by selenium released during phosphate mining.

Contact
Kathy Rinaldi, Idaho Conservation Coordinator

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