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Phosphate mining: a toxic tradition


It's a Stewart family tradition, passed down from generation to generation on their 880-acre ranch in southeast Idaho. A Stewart son escorts his unsuspecting girlfriend on horseback through a pine forest to a flat, treeless ridge the family calls the plateau. All the while, his family watches through binoculars from the living room, waiting for the young man to take the woman's hand and pop "the" question, exactly like his father, uncles, cousins and brothers did before him.

Even from a half-mile or so away, the answer is evident.

"You see her jumping up and down," says Brent Stewart, patriarch of a family that has run cattle in the Crow Creek Valley for 50 years.

Stewart chuckles, but there's a tinge of sadness in his voice. Soon, if phosphate-mining companies have their way, that ridge overlooking the ranch and its 11 Stewart family homes will exist only in memory. It will be the end of a time-honored tradition.

Trees will be clear-cut, topsoil scraped away and mountaintops obliterated as the Smoky Canyon Mine near the Idaho-Wyoming border inches toward Crow Creek. Land owned by neighbors Pete and Judy Riede could also be condemned so that J.R. Simplot Co.'s lumbering trucks can haul phosphate ore from the pit at Smoky Canyon. This is a mine that has already been designated a federal Superfund site; its processing mill in Pocatello is yet another Superfund site earmarked for costly cleanup.

To Brent Stewart, it's all like a bad dream. "The destruction to our family … this will be an unbelievable loss," he says. "It's a loss to wildlife and the people who love wildlife, for hunters -- for everybody."

The land and water in this remote corner of Idaho have been hit hard by the more than 30 active and mothballed mines in a 2,500 square-mile area. Phosphate mining releases selenium, a nonmetal element that's toxic in large quantities, into streams and, ultimately, soils and plants. Selenosis has killed hundreds of sheep and a half-dozen horses, and warnings are posted against eating fish from one creek. Hunters are cautioned to avoid eating the livers of elk and deer harvested in the region.

It was once believed that cattle were highly resistant to selenosis. Then, this August, 18 animals died within a week after they were pastured at the Lanes Creek Mine, which is awaiting cleanup by Simplot two decades after the Alumet company shuttered it.

Even as Simplot denies responsibility for the cattle deaths, the company is hurriedly seeking to expand its mining in the area. Monsanto is seeking a similar expansion above the Blackfoot River, east of Pocatello.

With selenium's potency likely increasing over time, Stewart wonders what impact more mining will have on his family and others in this peaceful valley. Simplot acknowledges that its mining has been contaminating area waters since 1985. But the company says it is confident that reclamation has largely taken care of the problem. Testing shows this not to be the case: Selenium concentrations in Pole Canyon Creek, for example, which was supposedly cleaned up by Simplot in 2007, revealed selenium concentrations 1,000 times higher than Idaho's generous water-quality standards. Mining has already poisoned 20 miles of Sage Creek, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

The EPA lists 17 phosphate-mining areas as Superfund sites, and the government has targeted Simplot's Conda, Gay and Lanes Creek mines for cleanup. No cleanup, however, has begun, so It is easy to understand why people like the Stewarts, who live close to Crow Creek, remain skeptical when Simplot officials promise to be good neighbors.

"They come and they leave, and they leave a mess," says Brent Stewart. "I don't care how good they are, I don't care how they try, I don't care how many regulations they meet. It's just the nature of the beast. It's going to benefit them for 10 years, and then they'll be gone."

If that happens, it will be left to the Stewarts and other ranching families in Crow Creek to pick up the pieces. For Stewart, this has become an ethical battle. He says he doesn't want his or anybody else's grandchildren and great-grandchildren to worry about eating toxic fish, deer or elk. He doesn't want them to find cattle and horse carcasses in their fields. But mostly, he fears a tragedy far beyond the loss of an age-old family tradition.

Jeff Welsch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org.) He lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he is the communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].