While the pollution at the FMC site rivals the story in the movie Erin Brockovich, the story of phosphate in Idaho actually has a much wider reach, spanning the entire Phosphoria Formation that lies underground across western Idaho, southwestern Montana, western Wyoming and northern Utah.
Deposited by an ancient shallow sea, the deposits have yielded 44 mines in Idaho. Seventeen of those are now Superfund sites, due to selenium contamination that threatens fish, livestock and terrestrial wildlife.
The J.R. Simplot Company’s Smoky Canyon Mine, east of Fort Hall near Idaho’s border with Wyoming, garnered national attention last year after the New York Times and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart reported that fish abnormalities have been linked to selenium contamination there, even as Simplot petitions the state to double the selenium limits. Those studies continue to generate controversy, and the selenium limit hasn’t been changed. The most recent estimate of a full selenium cleanup at that mine comes in at $112 million.
By comparison, hardly anyone knows about the Gay Mine on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. But tribal members worry about the waste rock dumps, ore stockpiles, and open pits – especially the ones with cliffed-out walls at risk of collapse – across the nearly 8,500 acre site. There are no fences to prevent cattle from lounging on the shores of selenium-laden ponds that have formed in some abandoned pits, or descending into others, only to become stuck and die.
Talia Martin and Zannita Fast Horse-Pongah, environmental scientists in the tribes’ Environmental Waste Management Division, routinely visit the area to collect water and soil samples, in the hopes that their work will contribute to reclamation work one day. But so far, that work has not begun.
Meanwhile, the Gay Mine is just another part of the reservation that’s been rendered dangerous by the phosphate industry. The J.R. Simplot’s fertilizer plant in Pocatello puts enough fluoride into the air to poison Bannock Creek, a tributary of the Snake River where the fishing should be excellent. The tribes also can’t eat fish out of the Portneuf River bottoms, nor perform the Ghost Dance at a traditional site called Ross Park. Ceremonies are also precluded at the poisoned Gay Mine. Livestock shouldn’t be grazing there, either; Martin and Fast Horse-Pongah hate that some tribal ranchers turn a blind eye to the risks.
And Fast Horse-Pongah is one of many people frustrated because they have frozen land near the still-poisoned mine.
“I would like to build on that land,” she says, “but the tribe says it’s too dangerous.”