By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Selenium contamination from a phosphate mine in southeastern Idaho is linked to fish deformities such as two-headed trout, and the problem would worsen if discharge limits were eased, a new government report found.
The findings come as Smoky Canyon Mine, run by the J.R. Simplot Company near the Wyoming border, is asking the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to relax restrictions on the amount of selenium that the mine may drain into tributaries of the Snake River, a world-class trout stream.
Simplot, one of the nation's largest privately held companies with annual sales of about $4.5 billion, wields considerable clout in its home state, where its products range from turf grass seed to frozen French fries for fast-food chains like McDonald's.
Environmentalists' concerns about selenium, an element released as a byproduct of the mining operation, prompted a U.S. Senate panel to ask contaminant specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate whether Simplot's request would harm wild trout and other species.
The agency's scientific review, released this week, analyzed studies of selenium impacts on trout health that Simplot had conducted to bolster its argument that waterways downstream of the mine would not be impaired by higher levels of selenium than are currently allowed in Idaho.
Under the state's water quality program and the federal Clean Water Act, industries that discharge pollutants into streams can request an easing of a particular standard if they can show through science it would not endanger human or animal health.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service review of Simplot's own studies showed the company overestimated how much selenium fish such as brown trout take in without risking fatal deformities.
Alan Prouty, Simplot vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs, said he had not fully examined the government's review so he declined to comment on its conclusions.
The company has worked for years to address pollution of area streams by historic mining operations, Prouty said, dismissing criticism of the mining operation by environmental groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
"To our credit, we've spent time looking at the ecological effects. What we think we bring to the table is science rather than a bunch of rhetoric," Prouty said.
Marv Hoyt, Idaho director of Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the government report should quash any consideration of loosening standards for the mine's selenium discharges.
"The review says Simplot's science is bad and its conclusions are worse," he said.
Toxicologists hired by Simplot to test selenium exposure in developing brown trout found many died and others were hatched with two heads, according to the government's review. Many of the deformed fish they observed were offspring, hatched in a laboratory, of wild adult trout contaminated by selenium at the mine site. Such abnormal larval fish, or fry, would be unlikely to survive in the wild.
However, Fish and Wildlife Service scientists found Simplot underestimated rates of deformity and mortality in the wild linked to selenium exposure. The agency said Simplot had failed to account for deformities of trout that had died, skewing the rate of abnormalities in the company's favor.
The company's findings "systematically biased low and environmentally unrealistic quantification of larval deformity rates," according to the government report, which was reviewed by three independent scientists.
Moreover, government biologists predicted only one in five trout fry were likely to develop normally after exposure to the concentrations of selenium that Simplot had recommended as acceptable.
Using Simplot's models, federal biologists also determined that such levels would impair reproduction of other wildlife, such as mallard ducks. They predicted 85 percent of duck eggs would fail to hatch.
Simplot did not analyze risks to water fowl and other wildlife, yet another reason the agency said the company's conclusions were flawed.
"Thus, it seems highly doubtful that the proposed site-specific criterion would comply with the Clean Water Act's mandate to protect wildlife," government scientists wrote.
They concluded the water quality exemption for selenium proposed by Simplot would "cause serious harm to fish and wildlife," service spokesman Chris Tollefson told Reuters.
Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral that in trace amounts is required for the proper functioning of living cells. But large doses can be toxic when released into the environment and concentrated as it progresses up the food chain, from aquatic plants to predators, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Smoky Canyon Mine taps a reserve of phosphate, which is used to produce fertilizer and livestock feed supplements. With 200 workers, the mine is a major employer in southeastern Idaho, where it has operated on U.S. Forest Service land since the early 1980s.
The toxic effects of selenium pollution drew widespread attention and study in the mid-1980s, when the chemical was found to cause deformities like protruding brains in 65 percent of ducks, herons and other birds and a massive fish die-off at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Daniel Trotta)