Two-Headed Fish, Brought to You by Polluters

An Idaho stream is home to two-headed trout, thanks to selenium pollution, a common contaminant from phosphate mining, agriculture and—you guessed it—coal ash.

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Truth is stranger than fiction.

The J.R. Simplot Company, owner of several phosphate mines in Idaho, is asking federal and state regulators to relax water quality standards and permit more selenium in Idaho streams than the law currently allows.  The reason: Simplot, one of the largest privately held companies in the world, doesn’t want to clean up creeks polluted with selenium from its mining operations in the Caribou National Forest.  As part of Simplot’s campaign to avoid expensive Superfund cleanups, the company conducted a study of the fish impacted by selenium near its Smoky Canyon Mine to demonstrate that a little more selenium is not such a bad thing.

The rub is that selenium is a deadly, bioaccumulative poison in small doses, which has caused widespread devastation of fisheries from California to North Carolina.  The principle sources of selenium contamination in U.S. waters are agricultural runoff, phosphate mining and, yes, coal ash.

In its zeal to avoid spending millions on clean up, Simplot comes close to arguing that two heads are better than one.  Selenium pollution, caused by Simplot’s mining, resulted in fish deformities including the two-headed trout (pictured).  Despite the obvious harm to aquatic life caused by the high selenium levels, Simplot argues that these fish can live with more.

But the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) vehemently disagreed and found Simplot’s research “highly questionable” and riddled with “confounded data.” In a critique of the 1,200-page Simplot report, FWS scientists found “significant flaws,” including failing to account for impacts on other wildlife and undercounting deformities, which include deformities of the eye, jaw, fin and spine.  The FWS found that the increases in selenium requested by Simplot “would result in serious harm to fish and wildlife if implemented.” In sum, the FWS stated that the increased selenium would essentially sanction a deformity rate as high as 70 percent for fish in the affected creeks. 

The relevance to coal ash?  Selenium is one of the most common coal ash contaminants found near coal ash dumps- frequently at levels higher than those measured in the Idaho stream that spawned the two-headed fish.  Selenium from coal ash has caused fish kills, sterility, deformities, and launched fish advisories in waterbodies in Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas, to name a few.

The takeaway is that industries are exceedingly bad at policing themselves and at recommending solutions to problems they’ve created, especially when those problems are expensive to fix. Remember the testimony in a 2010 Congressional hearing from a physician and utility consultant who stated that coal ash can be sprinkled on our cereal?  The utility industry, like J.R. Simplot, is also asking for a relaxation of federal standards (S.1751), even while more and more contamination from coal ash is discovered nationwide threatening our health and environment. 

The role of science absolutely is critical in Idaho, as it is in the coal ash debate.  When industry seeks to regulate itself, it can be a freak show.

For more information, check out these links:

Deformity study – Additional photos of deformed fish can be found in Proposed Site-Specific Selenium Criterion, Sage and Crow Creeks, Idaho, January 2012. Prepared for J.R. Simplot Company by: Formation Environmental, LLC and HabiTech, Inc. Submitted by J.R. Simplot Co. to Idaho Department of Environmental Quality on January 30, 2012. Appendix C of Appendix D.

Selenium Impacts on Fish: An Insidious Time Bomb, A Dennis Lemly, USFS, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: Vol. 5, No. 6, pp. 1139–1151 (l999)

Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Phosphate Mining: Poisoning Lands, Waters, Wildlife


Specializing in hazardous waste law, Lisa is an expert on coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal that burdens communities around the nation.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.