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Monsanto faces fight over phosphate mine

John Miller Associated Press

SODA SPRINGS, Idaho – As it races to replenish phosphate supplies for its weed-killing cash machine Roundup, Monsanto Co. insists its history of polluting southeastern Idaho’s high country shouldn’t prevent it from digging fresh open pits here.

Three of the St. Louis-based chemical company’s previous mines in this region of broad valleys and forested ridges are under federal Superfund authority; a fourth is now violating federal clean water laws. In all, several companies are responsible for polluting at least 17 sites southwest of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

With its current mine in the region nearly played out, Monsanto now wants federal regulators to let the company open a new one by 2011, contending safeguards on the project will keep poisons out of the Blackfoot River. The trout stream just a few hundred yards away is among 15 southeastern Idaho waterways where selenium that leaked from mines exceeds legal state levels.

David Farnsworth, Monsanto mining manager, walked the 1,400-acre Blackfoot Bridge site in late July, describing a liner meant to stop pollution. Even if it fails, he said, vast containment ponds below will keep poisons out of rivers downstream.

“The best-laid plans show that Mother Nature changes the game plan,” Farnsworth said. “The water shouldn’t become contaminated, but if it does, there are the means to handle it.”

Marv Hoyt, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Idaho Falls, counters Monsanto and fertilizer makers J.R. Simplot Co. and Agrium Inc. have squandered all trust with their past pollution.

At J.R. Simplot’s Conda site, hundreds of sheep died in the 1990s after eating toxic forage. Nearby, Canada’s Agrium is spending $500,000 at its North Maybe Mine to control selenium discharges blamed by state wildlife officials for killing all aquatic life in a creek.

“Shouldn’t you figure out how to fix the old problems before you start new ones?” asked Hoyt, a former environmental consultant for the coal industry.

Monsanto’s Roundup will generate more than $1 billion in gross profits annually, the company forecasts. In Caribou County, where 7,000 people live, Monsanto alone pays more than $29 million in wages and benefits.

And in June, J.R. Simplot threatened to slash more than 100 jobs at its Smoky Canyon Mine if a court-ordered halt to expansion – the result of a lawsuit by Hoyt’s group – wasn’t lifted. On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled against Hoyt’s group.

Hoyt pledged to appeal, something that doesn’t sit well with Soda Springs locals who rely on Agrium, Simplot and Monsanto to pay the bills.

“Sixty or 70 percent of the people in our community have a financial interest in what happens in the mining area,” said Mayor Kirk Hansen, whose 17-employee fuel distributorship makes about 30 percent of $90 million in annual sales to mining companies.

“Some would consider it a threat to their livelihoods,” he said.

Bureau of Land Management officials now reviewing the Blackfoot Bridge proposal insist government regulators and industry have learned from past mistakes.

“The public has a right to be damned mad,” said Jeff Cundick, the BLM minerals chief in Pocatello. But, he said, “I believe we’re rising to the challenge.”

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