JOHN MILLER Associated Press Writer - August 8, 2009
SODA SPRINGS, Idaho (AP) —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 coal industry.
About 240 million years ago, southeastern Idaho was covered by a warm sea where dead fish and plankton piled up, creating a prehistoric muck that hardened to phosphate- and selenium-rich rock. Today, phosphate mined here provides raw materials to help keep teeth white, doughnuts rise, crops grow and weeds under control. And it forms the backbone of the regional economy.
Monsanto's Roundup will generate over $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.
In a sign of just how important the mine is to Monsanto's future, it's paying the public relations firm of former U.S. Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus to promote Blackfoot Bridge as "a new way to mine." Andrus didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
Bureau of Land Management officials now reviewing the Blackfoot Bridge proposal insist government regulators and industry have learned from mistakes of the past that led to mines that decades later are leaking toxic metals and will likely cost millions to remediate.
For instance, after livestock died in the 1990s and officials realized selenium was a problem, the BLM began requiring more stringent reviews of new mining plans.
"The public has a right to be damned mad," said Jeff Cundick, the BLM minerals chief in Pocatello. But "I believe we're rising to the challenge. The past just can't happen again."
The last project approved under the less-stringent review was Monsanto's existing mine, South Rasmussen Ridge. A decade ago, the BLM concluded the company's design "would not allow selenium and other contaminants to migrate from the lease."
But federal Environmental Protection Agency officials now monitoring South Rasmussen say its waste dump is leaking selenium, cadmium, nickel and zinc into a Blackfoot tributary. On Aug. 18, 2008, for instance, selenium levels measured more than 30 times what Idaho law allows.
"There are serious, ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act that continue to this day," said Dave Tomten, an EPA geologist.
Farnsworth said his company is doing everything it can to remedy South Rasmussen's violations and insists precautions at Blackfoot Bridge will prevent repeat problems, protect the environment — and allow it to dig enough phosphate to pump out more than 200 million gallons of Roundup and other herbicides yearly.
"Monsanto has recognized the same old things we've done are not acceptable," Farnsworth said.
Chuck Trost, a retired Idaho State University wildlife biology professor in Pocatello, wrote the BLM in 1997 that he feared South Rasmussen's dump would leak. Those concerns now realized, Trost worries about Blackfoot Bridge, in spite of the company's assurances.
"There are problems in the Blackfoot River and they're not being addressed," he said. "It's a problem that's not staying where the mine is."