Are Pollution Rules Too Strict? Mining Company Says Yes, Two-Headed Trout Says No

Photos of mutated trout near the Smoky Canyon phosphate mine have prompted calls for further study of proposed changes to pollution standards in southern Idaho.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seemed happy with a report from mining operation J.R. Simplot Company—but other scientists were unnerved by the two-headed trout.

Simplot's Smoky Canyon phosphate mine, according to the New York Times, has polluted creeks in southern Idaho, and yet the company is trying to convince the EPA to permit elevated levels of selenium in fish tissue. The EPA received a draft report with numerous appendices totaling over 1,200 pages and, again according to the Times, "described the research as 'comprehensive' and seemed open to its findings."

But buried in an appendix of the report were disturbing photos of brown trout with deformities, including some with two heads. Scientists from other government agencies and environmentalists were outraged, and called for further review of Simplot's research.

According to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Simplot initially denied any knowledge of the mutated fish, despite the fact that the photos were in a report with the company's name on it. (The report, titled "Interpretive Findings for Field and Laboratory Studies and Literature Review in Support of a Site-Specific Selenium Criterion, Smoky Canyon Mine," was prepared for Simplot by Boulder-based Formation Environmental and Laramie-based HabiTech, and is dated August 2010.) On Monday, February 6, the company issued a statement that that described its reports as "studies that may lead to science-based, site-specific water-quality standards regarding selenium for the locations around Sage Creek and Crow Creek adjacent to our Smoky Canyon Mine, as provided by the Clean Water Act."

In other words—sure, there's more selenium in the water than the EPA wants, but our science says it's ok.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begs to differ. A critique of Simplot's report found it to be inadequate. “In the expert opinion of our biologist, the proposed site-specific selenium concentrations would result in serious harm to fish and wildlife, if implemented,” said Chris Tollefson, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the News & Guide. “Our review found significant flaws in the scientific justifications presented in the Smoky Canyon Mine document and concluded that those justifications were inadequate to support the site-specific selenium water-quality criterion being proposed.”

Since 2004, the EPA has recommended a limit on selenium in fish tissue of 7.9 parts per million (ppm), although other government agencies prefer a level of 4 or 5 ppm. Simplot is proposing an amended limit of 14 ppm in fish tissue.