Thousands comment on Monsanto's planned Idaho mine

AP News
Posted: Nov 25, 2009 3:01 PM

A proposed Monsanto Co. phosphate mine slated to produce ingredients for Roundup weedkiller generated nearly 7,000 public comments, including from a former U.S. Interior secretary who urges its approval and the Environmental Protection Agency, which wants additional pollution safeguards.

The Bureau of Land Management will review the comments to see if a plan for the Blackfoot Bridge Mine released earlier this year merits changes. Final approval of the mine could come by next summer.

"This is the type of project Idaho needs _ sustaining, good-paying jobs filled by solid, hard-working people, and protecting our environment at the same time," wrote Cecil Andrus, the former Idaho governor and Interior secretary whose public relations firm is under contract with Monsanto.

The EPA raised concerns about possible failure of a proposed $25 million liner meant to stop naturally occurring but poisonous selenium before it reaches the Blackfoot River.

The BLM's plan "assumes that source control will be highly effective," according to EPA comments. "Based on experience at numerous other hardrock mine sites in the western U.S., it is highly likely that additional measures... may be necessary."

The EPA is already pushing Monsanto to resolve Clean Water Act violations at the mine that Blackfoot Bridge is due to replace in 2011.

Monsanto, the J.R. Simplot Co., and Canadian-based Agrium Inc. are among companies that have polluted at least 17 sites in Idaho's phosphate belt southwest of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks with a century of mining. Hundreds of livestock have died of selenium poisoning at Simplot- and Agrium-controlled sites, including 18 cattle in August.

Since selenium problems emerged in the mid-1990s, land managers responsible for permitting new mines have a tough task _ balancing industry that underpins the region's economy while protecting territory they oversee from pollution.

In August, the BLM determined the Blackfoot Bridge plan, including the liner to be installed over selenium-rich waste rock, would be sufficient.

Kyle Free, a BLM mining engineer in Pocatello, declined to speculate this week on how his agency will incorporate concerns from the EPA and others into a final mining plan.

The financial stakes are high: Blackfoot Bridge's federal royalties are estimated at $39 million, with Idaho and local governments to get some $17 million. Monsanto, whose eastern Idaho payroll is more than $29 million, expects Roundup to generate over $1 billion in gross profits annually.

Politicians from Louisiana and Iowa, where plants make Roundup from phosphate mined in Idaho, wrote in support of the mine.

"The production of Roundup provides about 500 jobs for Iowans," wrote Iowa Gov. Chet Culver.

Meanwhile, St. Louis-based Monsanto sought to defuse EPA concerns over the liner.

"The bentonite clay used... will remain intact for hundreds to thousands of years, and the geotextile components have an expected lifetime of hundreds of years," it wrote.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which hired its own experts to review the mining plan, concluded it "fails to ensure adequate environmental protections on many fronts."

The Idaho Conservation League, another environmental group, called the proposed liner "a step in the right direction" but suggested it be expanded to cover more of the 739-acre mine's disturbed areas.

Both Monsanto and critics of phosphate mining in southeastern Idaho rallied their respective forces with thousands of form letters, though some people added personal touches. One eastern Idaho junior high school student who toured Monsanto sites this summer liked what she saw, especially after seeing old mines controlled by other companies.

"Compared to Agrium, the reclamation of the Monsanto area is gorgeous," wrote Cheyenne Page, from nearby Rigby. "Monsanto surely deserves the Blackfoot Bridge area."