Conservation Groups Challenge Controversial Mine Plan in Idaho

Simplot Co's plan would increase pollution, harm hunting, fishing, and ranching


Tim Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699
John Hart, (208) 522-1048
Marv Hoyt, (208) 522-7927

Four conservation groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the expansion of the Smoky Canyon phosphate mine into roadless areas of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeast Idaho. The expansion of the mine, which is already listed as a federal Superfund site due to toxic pollution of area waters, will likely create additional pollution in southeast Idaho springs and streams.

Smoky Canyon is a large open-pit phosphate mine stretching for miles in the backcountry on the Idaho/Wyoming border. The mine has been listed as a Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency due to severe pollution of surrounding waterways and lands with selenium, a mineral that can cause deformities and death when present in excessive quantities in animals. Selenium pollution has killed trout, livestock and untold wildlife since first being documented in southeast Idaho more than two decades ago. Selenium pollution can also be a threat to humans as concentrations increase.

Despite the documented selenium pollution problem and the absence of a clean-up plan for the existing mine, the Bush administration in June authorized expansion of the mine. The federal authorization approves a mine plan that calls for digging up massive amounts of selenium-bearing rock to access the phosphate ore. The groups’ lawsuit challenges that authorization, citing violations of environmental laws that protect water quality from contamination by selenium and other pollutants.

“This government decision allows new mining before the mess left by the old mining is cleaned up,” said Marv Hoyt, Idaho representative of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Given that the new mining will also cause selenium pollution, this mine expansion will only compound southeast Idaho’s selenium pollution problem.”

The expansion of the mine was approved by the Forest Service and the BLM on the assurances of the mine’s operator, J.R. Simplot Company, that additional selenium contamination will be effectively contained. Yet even the agencies’ own scientists have questioned the science and the proposed practices in the mine plan. Additional reviews by independent experts have raised many new questions and found that the new mine will certainly cause additional selenium contamination to streams and ground water already polluted from past mining.

No Effective Containment

Past mining expansions were also approved based on similar containment assurances by Simplot. Despite these confident industry promises, selenium pollution has increased and spread into surrounding waterways with each new expansion. The industry has not yet produced an effective solution to stop the spread of selenium contamination.

John Hart, a spokesperson for the conservation groups, said, “The mine expansion will increase pollution and harm hunting, fishing, ranching, and recreation. Many people in the area of the mine rely on clean water for their livelihood and way of life. We know these are good people who work at the mine. But mining jobs should not trump the work of others or the economic value of clean water.  If Simplot would focus more on the necessary clean up work at Smoky Canyon, there could be new jobs created at the mine.”

Impacts on Recreation and Wildlife

The mine expansion would enlarge the footprint of the immense mine into more than 1,100 acres of pristine roadless forests that are now used by hunters, anglers, and hikers. Such roadless areas provide critical habitat for the deer, elk, moose and other wildlife already displaced by decades of heavy mining in the region. These undisturbed roadless areas also provide clean water for the streams, rivers and aquifers of the region. These roadless areas are supposed to be protected from development by the 2001 Roadless Rule. The Bush administration and state of Idaho have been trying to circumvent the letter and spirit of the roadless rule.

“This mining authorization represents a major assault on Idaho’s roadless areas by the Bush administration,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “The administration’s claim that they are complying with the Roadless Rule is undercut by the fact that they are betting on changes in the rule in order to implement this decision.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife.  The conservation groups are represented by the public-interest law firm Earthjustice. 

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