It was the two-headed baby trout that got everyone’s attention.
Images from the appendix of a report by the J. R. Simplot Company show the mutated offspring of trout from Idaho creeks. The report concluded that selenium should be allowed in higher levels in creeks than is now permitted under regulations.
Photographs of variously mutated brown trout were relegated to an appendix of a scientific study commissioned by the J. R. Simplot Company, whose mining operations have polluted nearby creeks in southern Idaho. The trout were the offspring of local fish caught in the wild that had been spawned in the laboratory. Some had two heads; others had facial, fin and egg deformities.
Yet the company’s report concluded that it would be safe to allow selenium — a metal byproduct of mining that is toxic to fish and birds — to remain in area creeks at higher levels than are now permitted under regulatory guidelines. The company is seeking a judgment to that effect from the Environmental Protection Agency. After receiving a draft report that ran hundreds of pages, an E.P.A. review described the research as “comprehensive” and seemed open to its findings, which supported the selenium variance for Simplot’s Smoky Canyon mine.
But when other federal scientists and some environmentalists learned of the two-headed brown trout, they raised a ruckus, which resulted in further scientific review that found the company’s research wanting.
Now, several federal agencies, an array of environmental groups and one of the nation’s largest private companies are at odds over selenium contamination from the Idaho phosphate mine, the integrity of the company’s research, and what its effect will be on future regulatory policy.
The implications extend beyond Idaho. Selenium is a pollutant at 200 of the 1,294 locations designated by the federal government as toxic Superfund sites. And even though its effects on wildlife have been known for decades, federal agencies have not been able to agree on what level should be prohibited. The E.P.A. is currently reviewing federal selenium rules.
After hearing about the mutant trout, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the Democrat who heads the chamber’s Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and vet the mining company’s scientific research and conclusions.
The service’s review, released last month, was scathing, describing the study as “biased” and “highly questionable.” Joseph Skorupa, the service’s selenium expert, cited a “lack of valid field controls” and the absence of any analysis of the selenium’s impact on reptiles, birds or the 12 other types of fish in the creeks’ waters. Most troubling, he wrote, was that the researchers systematically undermeasured the rate of serious deformities in baby fish, which were pictured only in an appendix.
Dr. Skorupa wrote that the Simplot report did not provide raw data that would enable him to independently calculate deformity rates. He estimated, however, that the level of selenium that Simplot says causes a 20 percent rate of deformity actually causes a deformity rate of a minimum of 70 percent of all fry. Asked about the wildlife service’s findings, Alan L. Prouty, Simplot’s vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs, declined to comment beyond saying that the agency’s review was “totally outside the regulatory process.”
He added that his company’s research was conducted with the guidance of the E.P.A. and other government agencies.
Senator Boxer said that she was not seeking to take sides on Simplot’s variance request, but that she wanted the government to get the science right because it could effect national standards on selenium.
According to an E.P.A. document provided to The New York Times by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a local conservation group that has been battling Simplot over contamination for years, the trout data from the Smoky Canyon study has already been included in a “national criterion document” — a larger database used to help establish those standards.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element that, when disturbed, can be released as a toxic byproduct of human activities like farming, mining and burning coal. The regulation of selenium pollution is, for example, a highly contested issue in mountaintop coal mining in West Virginia and in agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley in California.
The metal can also affect human health, with symptoms including hair and fingernail loss and numbness in fingers and toes. It has been regulated in drinking water since the 1970s.
But the metal is far more dangerous to aquatic egg-bearing animals like fish, birds and reptiles — a fact revealed in the early 1980s when excessive selenium in agricultural runoff resulted in fatal deformities in waterfowl at the Kesterson Reservoir in California, including missing eyes and feet, deformed beaks, legs and wings, and protruding brains.
In 1987, the E.P.A. recommended that states set limits for selenium at five parts per billion as measured in the water. (States may adopt tougher limits, but if they prefer less restrictive standards they must submit studies and seek approval from the agency.)
Since then, scientists have recommended that stricter limits are needed, but the rule has not been reset. While federal agencies agree that measuring levels of selenium in fish tissue is more telling than the amount in water, after that the consensus breaks down on what level constitutes a safe standard.
The E.P.A., since 2004, has said that a standard of 7.9 parts per million in fish tissue would be enough to protect all but 20 percent of aquatic populations from chronic deformities. But scientists at three federal agencies — the Forest Service, the Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service — contend that standard is based on flawed science. Scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service have estimated that roughly half that amount — 4 or 5 parts per million — would be a safer standard.
The Smoky Canyon phosphate mine opened in 1984. In 2003, Simplot’s management agreed to clean up the site under the Superfund law, which gave it temporary shelter from litigation and federal fines.
According to the Forest Service, which overseas the Simplot cleanup, the company has spent about $3.5 million to restore the area. But there is still more to do. Simplot acknowledges, for example, that the nearby waterway of Hoopes Springs still measures 70 parts per billion of selenium, 14 times the federal limit.
So Simplot decided to also make a case for a different standard. Mr. Prouty, the company vice president, said the trout population in the nearby creeks has remained stable over 30 years. Perhaps, he suggested, local cold water trout are more resistant to selenium than other fish. “The five-parts-per-billion standards are based on warm water fishes that are typically more sensitive than our trout, “ he said.
So Simplot officials hired scientific consultants, and in August 2010 they submitted a draft report to the government, which suggested that the brown trout could support selenium tissue levels of 13 to 14 parts per million in their tissue.
The company submitted a final report with the pictures of the deformed trout to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which must make an initial determination on the exemption. The E.P.A. will have final approval.
Jeff Holmstead, head of the environmental strategies group at Bracewell & Giuliani, a law firm that represents industry groups on these issues and headed air quality for the E.P.A. during President George W. Bush’s administration, said it was “not at all unusual” for federal agencies to differ on this kind of issue.
“It is surprising that the E.P.A. is supporting a less stringent standard than another agency,” he said. That may be, he added, “because selenium is primarily an issue for wildlife and not for human health,” which is the agency’s top priority.
Christine Psyk, associate director for the E.P.A.’s Region 10, which oversees Idaho, said the agency’s early praise of the Simplot draft study does “not represent a final position from the E.P.A. on the company’s proposal.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service had been reluctant to get involved and asked three independent scientists to peer-review its own findings on the Simplot study, a standard practice for assuring scientific integrity.
“In my research, I have seen lots of malformed baby fish, but never one with two heads,” said David Janz, an aquatic toxicology professor at the University of Saskatchewan who took part in the peer review. While Dr. Janz said that such malformations do occur naturally in the wild, he said he thought selenium pollution most likely played a role in this case. “Selenium is emerging as a pollutant of global concern,” he said. “We need to be careful here.”
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