Reports commissioned by the J.R. Simplot Co. show a link between selenium contamination at its Smoky Canyon mine and a wide range of deformities in fish, including some examples of two-headed trout.
The reports, carried out by consulting firms that Simplot hired, are part of the company’s push for an exception to government limits on selenium coming from the phosphate mine east of Soda Springs.
Simplot spokesman David Cuoio said the company is aware of selenium contamination in the waterways around the Smoky Canyon mine, as well as concerns about what effects that contamination might have.
“We have been working with government agencies and top scientists to address the effects of historic mining processes,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s happening and why.”
In two studies that the Simplot report analyzes, the deformed fish were not themselves taken from the creeks that surround the mine. Instead, eggs from adult Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and Brown Trout that had been exposed to selenium were hatched in laboratories.
Besides the result of two-headed young fish, researchers found other deformities to snouts, crania and fins.
For environmental protection advocates, the Simplot reports provide ammunition for their fight against Simplot’s operations at the mine.
Marv Hoyt, Idaho director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the reports show that despite the fact that Simplot’s own contractors produced them, selenium from Smoky Canyon is harming fish populations in the watershed.
He pointed to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review, which criticized several aspects of the Simplot report, including “systematically biased” and “environmentally unrealistic” data, as evidence that the link between selenium and fish deformities may be stronger than the Simplot report suggests.
But state government officials cautioned not to read too much into the report’s findings.
Selenium, a naturally occurring element that becomes concentrated in certain areas due to phosphate and coal mining, may be related to the production of two-headed fish, said Mark Gamblin, Idaho Department of Fish and Game southeast regional supervisor. Then again, he said, it may not be.
“It could have happened absent of selenium contamination,” Gamblin said.
To a certain degree, deformities are to be expected in this kind of study since its goal was to measure the effects of a range of selenium-exposure intensities on young fish, said Bruce Olenick, regional administrator in the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Pocatello office.
In the coming months, Olenick said, the Department of Environmental Quality will analyze the 1,200-page Simplot report, which it received Monday. Through that analysis, he said, the agency will determine if the report is valid.