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Still Fighting the Toxic Giant

A few years ago, USA Today did a two-page article about the problems faced by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in their battle to clean up a Superfund plant on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho (USA Today, "Tribes fight toxic giant," June 3, 1998). I am sorry to say the saga continues. This week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued proposed rules that would let the company, FMC Corporation, bury its industrial poisons on site.

One of the areas at risk from the poisons is "the bottoms." It's low-land creeks and marshes that feed into Idaho's Snake River. It’s world-class fishing. It’s also home to Shoshone and Bannock people. Bands from our tribes have wintered there and been a part of this landscape for at least the last 10,000 years.

Ten thousand years.

I think of those three words and wonder what’s in store for the next 10,000 years. The EPA and FMC are proposing a scheme to cover up fifty years of waste. One of the toxic chemicals left behind is elemental phosphorus or P4, a material that remains poisonous for 10,000 years.

The EPA and FMC want to cover up this industrial mess with dirt and hope for the best. Their proposed plan would rely on “natural attenuation” to neutralize and dilute the poisons as they work their way through the soil and groundwater. FMC will then make a futile attempt to capture remaining contaminants by pumping and treating some of the groundwater at the site boundary. So those industrial poisons will likely leach out over time into our bottoms lands, the aquifer and the Snake River system. Our region’s waterways essentially become the company’s toxic toilet bowl.

So we’re asking EPA and FMC to take a closer look at cleaning the one area of the site that we know is especially dirty, where poisons have been detected in groundwater at 90 feet. The old furnace building area contains significant quantities of elemental phosphorus (estimates range from 5,000 tons to 16,000 tons). This is common sense because a treatment plan that gets at the most contaminated area means less poisons will end up in our water. (I would prefer the entire facility be clean up, but EPA has already told us that is not even remotely possible.)

As USA Today reported, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have mixed feelings about FMC because the company did create so many good paying jobs for Shoshone-Bannock tribal members, including three current members of the tribal council. The product from the plant, elemental phosphorus, is used in so many everyday products. We get that. But we also know, and have known for a long time, about the risky nature of those chemicals.

FMC says one of its corporate values is “to protect the health and safety of our employees, our communities and the public” and "to operate our facilities in a manner that prevents harm to the environment.” This is a good value. One that I endorse. It’s also why FMC should do the right thing here and clean up the most toxic area of the site before it leaves our region for good.

I want my children, and their children, to have the same pride in the Fort Hall bottoms, and East Idaho, that I do. We need to make the decisions today to make that possible for the years ahead. Make that the 10,000 years ahead.

Nathan Small is chairman of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes' tribal council.