I'm as guilty as the next headline writer. When High Country News ran a story about selenium pollution in May, I went with the two-headed fish. After all, a headline promising a grotesque tale of a deformed fish was one of our few opportunities to even approach the clickability of adorable miniature pig videos and celebrity sideboob photos.
But as veteran Idaho Statesman environmental reporter Rocky Barker shows in a recent write-up on two-headed fish, despite the misfortunate troutlet's recent turn in the Daily Show's limelight, its deformities are not the real story.
Last Thursday, comedian Aasif Mandvi led a Daily Show expose (faux-spose?) of Idaho's two-headed fish problem. Mandvi's fake news report tied the deformed fish to phosphate mining company Simplot in a way that, as Barker writes, "linked Simplot's phosphate mining with mutant fish." The New York Times has also covered the issue using images of the deformed fish, writes Barker.
While it's true that elevated levels of selenium can lead to deformities and even death, the fish's abnormalities weren't necessarily caused by selenium pollution. In fact, the report those images came from, as Barker writes, contained many images of deformed fish. Some of them came from rivers below Simplot's Smoky Canyon Mine. But other fish pictured in the report, also with two heads and deformed bodies, "came from a hatchery in Wyoming," writes Barker.
The point of including those images in that report, which was commissioned by Simplot, is to show that fish become deformed in non-contaminated as well as contaminated settings.
As Barker writes:
"It’s the rate of deformity that matters, and Simplot argued that the rates of deformity in the fish in its creeks are not dramatically different."
Simplot submitted that report as part of their effort to convince the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to ease their pollution cleanup burden. The company wants the DEQ to let its cleanup crews leave a higher level of selenium than is typically allowed in the two creeks below the mine, which is a Superfund site. The company contends that fish in the creek have adapted to higher selenium levels, and because of that the fish will not be harmed if the company's Superfund cleanup doesn't get the creek's selenium levels down to the normal standard required under the Clean Water Act.
If you want to read the Simplot report, (called the "Simplot Site-Specific Criterion Proposal;" I'm giving you the name because it wasn't easy to find) as well as the appendices containing fish deformity testing results and the offending photos, go here -- they are available for download.
As Barker reports, despite the Daily Show's insinuations that Simplot is getting away with poisoning Idaho creeks, the fact is, they got away with that years ago. The issue now is whether Simplot will be allowed to clean the rivers up to a lower standard than is usually required. Officials don't exactly seem poised to let that happen; Simplot's report has been critiqued by the Fish and Wildlife Service, as High Country News writer Danielle Venton noted in her recent story on selenium pollution. And the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality said it would take its time and consider the science before making any changes to the cleanup standards.
To headline writers and fake newscasters, two-headed fish are a bit too irresistible. Luckily, we have Rocky Barker to set the record straight.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.
I know you were hoping for those two-headed fish photos...but come on. Instead, I hope you enjoy the screenshot I took from Simplot's website, which was fun to browse through.