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The Wound That Won’t Heal: EPA’s Band-Aid on Idaho Phosphate Pollution

The EPA’s new plan to cope with pollution at a defunct phosphorus plant on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation appears ambitious.
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With a $57 million price tag, the EPA’s new plan to cope with pollution at a defunct phosphorus plant on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation would appear to be ambitious.

But for many Shoshone-Bannock tribal members living on the reservation, the plan doesn’t go nearly far enough. For 52 years, the FMC Corp. operated its elemental phosphorus plant on a 1,500-acre site, 1,100 acres of which are on the reservation. Ore was shipped to the plant in railcars from numerous nearby mines, and stockpiled until it could be mixed with silica and coke, a fuel, and heated to 8,000 degrees F in giant furnaces. The end product, elemental phosphorous, was used in everything from soft drinks to cleaning agents.

According to FMC estimates, the tribes received about $110 million in payments related to the mining and manufacture of elemental phosphorus, including $60 million related to mining at the Gay Mine on the reservation. During the last five years of the plant’s operation, an average of 74 Native Americans were employed at the plant, plus contractors. In 2001, the tribe accepted a $40 million payment from FMC, which was distributed to tribal members, to allow capping of the waste in the largest, and last operating, waste pond.

But the process also entailed heavy costs. Furnaces in an elemental phosphorus operation yield a constant by-product called slag, a glassy substance with a high carbonate content along with uranium and radium. Entry-level workers at such a plant often start as “tappers,” who endure searing hot temperatures to bang the molten slag out of the furnaces with long iron rods.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, slag from FMC and a nearby Monsanto plant was sold and used for railroad ballast as well as the basements and foundations in homes and other buildings. Those sales stopped in the 1990s, after awareness had dawned about the radiation exposure risk; a program is still in place to test homes across the region and remediate the dangerous ones. And so from the 1990s forward, the tappers put the slag into vehicles that carted it to a designated slag pile; FMC’s covers 150 acres to a peak of about 150 feet.

Another 300 acres at FMC are contaminated to varying degrees, to a depth of up to 85 feet, with phosphorous either from the phosphate ore or elemental phosphorous that leaked and spilled, as well as arsenic and metals that often accompany phosphorous in nature – and get concentrated where ore is processed. The amount of phosphorus hasn’t been thoroughly quantified; FMC associate director Barbara Ritchie describes some underground areas as “marble cake” that would be dangerous to probe because “there’s no way of safely knowing which layer you’d be in.” The most dramatic estimate puts it at 137,000 tons of elemental phosphorous. Ritchie says that’s probably exaggerated – but it’s not zero.

Finally, there are eight waste ponds, where slurry water was dumped, containing solidified elemental phosphorous and a litany of heavy metals. Seven of the eight ponds were lined with materials that were standard at the time, but likely wouldn’t meet environmental standards today. The oldest pond was never lined.

The ponds, which range from 3 acres to 13 acres apiece, were covered with engineered caps of clay and polyethylene and topped with soil and vegetation between 1999 and 2005. Aside from fears that the liners and caps still allow leakage into the groundwater, they are dangerous primarily because when air comes into contact with the elemental phosphorous, it ignites. The caps revealed weaknesses in 2006 and 2007 when smoke began billowing out from a monitoring point where a temperature gage had poked through one of the caps. The smoke was coming from ongoing decomposition of the phosphorous, which yields phosphine gas; unknown quantities of the toxic gas are permeating the soil around the ponds. Since 2008, FMC has been capturing and treating the phosphine gas at several of the most reactive ponds, using technology similar to that used to capture methane at landfills. That will require sustained effort; the half-life of the reaction’s main ingredients is around 10,000 years.

Anne Minard

The rectangular concrete structures are temperature monitors, a way to be sure combustion isn’t getting started underground.

The eight waste ponds fall under a 1999 consent decree between the EPA and FMC according to the rules of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The rest of the site is regulated under EPA’s Superfund Program alongside some adjacent contaminated acreage and the neighboring, still-operating J.R. Simplot plant, which has been producing phosphoric acid by way of a different process since 1944. The total site, called the Eastern Michaud Flats Superfund Site, encompasses 2,475 acres.

The FMC portion of the Superfund site containing arsenic, radionuclides and phosphorous is a primary focus of the EPA’s new cleanup order, says Beth Sheldrake, the EPA’s Seattle-based team leader for Idaho’s Superfund sites, including the FMC portion of the Eastern Michaud Flats site. The main concern is phosphorus, because when it reaches the Portneuf River it can cause an overgrowth of plants and de-oxygenate the water for fish and other wildlife for many downstream miles. The EPA and the state of Idaho have their hands full on that score; the still-operating Simplot plant leaks far more phosphorous than FMC into the groundwater and the Portneuf.

The EPA’s approach to most of FMC’s pollution outside the waste ponds is to cover it with engineered, low-tech caps of soils seeded with plants known to retain moisture in their root zones. The primary goal is to keep rainwater from percolating into the phosphorous-laden waste and thereby pulling the contaminants down into the groundwater and toward the Portneuf River.

The EPA has also required FMC to install four wells at the edge of the FMC site to pump and treat groundwater for arsenic. Predictions are mixed about how much arsenic this will remove, but the EPA is banking on getting enough out initially so that when the rest does migrate to the Portneuf River, it’s diluted below federal limits.

FMC’s Ritchie says she’s relieved that the EPA has finally released a plan. “Twenty years later, FMC believes it’s time to clean it up,” she said, “so we can put the property into some useful purpose for the community.”

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‘Band-Aid on an Arterial Wound’

Shoshone-Bannock tribal members have a slogan they use to characterize their feelings about the EPA’s plan at FMC: They want it cleaned up, not covered up.

Tribal members know as well as anyone that the early caps haven’t been foolproof. It was tribal members who sent photos of smoking ponds to the EPA in 2006 and 2007, resulting in a federal enforcement action requiring FMC to pump and treat the phosphine. “We always felt that the cover-up was a flawed technology in the first place,” says Kelly Wright, Shoshone-Bannock Environmental Program (check) director. “As long as oxygen under any circumstances can get to that waste, you’re going to get explosions. We’re basically putting a Band-Aid on an arterial wound.”

Wright cites Onondaga Lake near Syracuse, New York, where the EPA is involved in a consent decree mandating a cleanup of mercury and other contaminants that is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars; they announced a $260 million expenditure on August 8. “I think it’s kind of odd, that when it comes to $57 million, EPA can claim that’s enough,” he said. Even if a plan that included treating and removing FMC’s waste would cost several hundred million, he said, any technology used in the effort would give back because it would be available for other similarly polluted sites.

But the EPA says cost isn’t a limiting factor at Eastern Michaud Flats, since the government simply bills the corporations for most cleanup costs – and maintains an accounting of past fees it’s collected, for environmental violations, to cover others. The real reason the EPA doesn’t want to remove the phosphorous from the FMC site, says Lori Howell, Seattle-based deputy director for the EPA’s Office of Environmental Cleanup, is because it’s dangerous to do so. “We have funds to do an independent review of technologies we didn’t identify previously; we’ve talked to researchers all over the world,” she sad. “There were some technologies that would potentially treat the waste, but they would require exposing the material to air.”

And, as EPA Spokesman Mark MacIntyre so succinctly explains, “Clearly, excavating and removing phosphate is tricky because as soon as it hits air, it ignites.”

On the other hand, Howell continues, “this type of contamination, if it remains in place and is untouched, it is stable. That was a big reason EPA determined that it’s best to leave the material in place and not try to remove it. We realize the tribes haven’t accepted that.”

FMC’s Ritchie corroborates this view; a blown-up photo of a fire from the Stauffer Superfund Site northwest of Tampa, Florida adorns the wall of a trailer where she and others work when they visit FMC. At the Stauffer site, the EPA attempted to stabilize waste ponds similar to FMC’s by pumping them full of cement slurry. “As a result of the cement curing the elemental phosphorous ignited and created a fire,” reads an account of the incident by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection, “911 was called and Hazmat responded. The fire was extinguished after several hours by the contractor.”

After that, the pilot project to stabilize the waste with cement was abandoned; the EPA has opted to cap the waste with soil there and at every other comparable phosphorous site in the country.

Ritchie points out multiple, 20-pound binders she says contain exhaustive studies of alternative remedies. They say FMC and the EPA alike have explored other options, and capping consistently scores highest in terms of safety.

But tribal council members who once worked at the plant aren’t buying it. They remember well how they used to load elemental phosphorous in 55-gallon barrels for transport to customers.

FMC contends that the product was always submerged in water to prevent reactivity, and blanketed with reaction-stopping nitrogen as an extra precaution. They say it would be impossible to apply those precautions to the waste ponds – even saturating them enough to quench the phosphorous would flush the accompanying heavy metals into the groundwater. But Susan Hanson, a RCRA/Superfund consultant who works for the tribes, has an answer for that, too – blanket the area in sections with nitrogen gas to mollify the phosphorous, she says, and use robotics to remove and treat it. It would be expensive, she thinks – but possible.

Competing Visions

In the most optimistic scenario from the tribal perspective, the Shoshone-Bannock people will convince the EPA to conduct an unprecedented cleanup of the former FMC site. The groundwater will run clean again, and local populations of birds and frogs will recover. Tribal fishing rights will be effectively restored because the fish will once again be safe to eat. New industry will move in, taking advantage of the railroad access and the power infrastructure that once benefitted FMC. Although tax revenues from this hypothetical industry will bypass the tribes because the site is on fee land, past TERO victories will ensure that jobs open up first for tribal members.

But the way it stands now, the tribes will be forced to settle for less. If the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan proceeds on the FMC part of the Eastern Michaud Flats Superfund Site, the agency expects that just 400 of the 1,200 acres will become safe enough to support a future industrial development. Waste will linger between caps, liners and monitoring technologies that have shown marginal success in the past, keeping the tribes on pins and needles about the potential for leaks and fires.

As for the future of the site for industry, the tribes are incredulous: “I don’t know what kind of company would want to come in there and develop anything,” says Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Chairman Nathan Small, “with contaminated land and contaminated water.”

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