Conservation Groups Warn of Impending Lawsuits over Selenium Pollution at Smoky Canyon Mine in Southeast Idaho

Dumping of waste rock at the phosphate mine illegally contaminates the underlying aquifer with toxic levels of selenium.


Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119
Marv Hoyt, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, (208) 522-7927

Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, put the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and J.R. Simplot Company on notice they could be sued for allowing selenium pollution at the Smoky Canyon Mine in southeast Idaho. Earthjustice is representing the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A 60-day notice letter sent by Earthjustice says the open dumping of waste rock at the phosphate mine illegally contaminates the underlying aquifer with toxic levels of selenium. Selenium is a mineral that is prevalent in the southeast Idaho phosphate mines. Phosphate ore is primarily used for fertilizer and agricultural chemicals.

The Trouble with Selenium

Selenium at trace amounts is not harmful. But at higher concentrations, selenium can trigger serious toxic effects in fish, livestock, wildlife, and humans. Reproductive failure, severe deformations both at birth and in adults, and even death can occur. Once released into our land and water, toxic levels of selenium persist for hundreds of years, threatening the health and prosperity of future generations. Selenium also builds up in the food chain with increasing concentrations in plants, fish, and animals – including trout, deer, and elk that are eaten by local hunters and anglers and their families.

Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said, “The mine and the Forest Service are breaking the law by polluting the water of one of the most beautiful regions in America. We intend to do something about it.”

The Forest Service and the company are violating the open dumping prohibition of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). A waste rock dump in the active portion of the mine is contributing selenium to the groundwater at levels above the RCRA regulatory standard. The Smoky Canyon Mine is one of 17 phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho that have been designated as Superfund sites as a result of serious selenium contamination. Current and past phosphate mining in the region has resulted in ongoing widespread selenium contamination of streams, groundwater, vegetation and soil. Despite the ongoing environmental damage, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have just released a final environmental analysis that will lead to a 1,300-acre expansion of the mine into the Sage Creek and Meade Peak roadless areas. 

“Selenium pollution from phosphate mines in southeast Idaho has caused over 500 documented livestock deaths, untold numbers of wildlife deaths, and depleted native trout from streams in southeast Idaho,” said Marv Hoyt of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“Not a single phosphate mine in southeast Idaho has ever been fully cleaned up after mining,” said Johanna Wald of Natural Resources Defense Council. “These mines continue to pollute the land and water long after mining ceases.”

In September, Edgar Imhoff, a retired federal hydrologist and environmental clean up expert, released a report documenting the decades-long cover-up of toxic selenium contamination in southeastern Idaho by federal agencies and the phosphate mining industry. The industry together with federal land managers have claimed publicly the harmful effects of elevated selenium concentrations were not known until after a 1996 incident when several horses had to be euthanized after becoming poisoned by selenium in a pasture downstream from the Maybe Canyon phosphate mine.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made clear that mining companies and federal agencies have colluded for years to cover up knowledge of potential harm from selenium contamination.  It is clear that, in 1982, Simplot and the Forest Service knew of the connection between the disposal of waste rock and selenium contamination of the environment. Also, the Forest Service and Simplot must have been aware of the extraordinarily high concentrations of  selenium in the ore at Smoky Canyon Mine — the highest in southeast Idaho — and the highest ever found in the history of sampling selenium in the United States.

Read a fact sheet on the Smoky Canyon Mine

Read the 60-day notice to the US Forest Service

Read the 60-day notice to Simplot

Learn more about the issues at Smoky Canyon

Additional Resources

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