CONDA — Between 150 and 160 sheep died last month after drinking from a spring containing lethal amounts of selenium, a waste product of the phosphate mining process.
The sheep, which belonged to Alicia Dredge, were grazing a stretch of private land located downhill from a reclaimed phosphate mine northeast of Soda Springs.
Wayne Cutler, a veterinarian in Soda Springs who responded to the die-off, said the spring on the private grazing land had a selenium content that was 10 times higher then any he had seen before.
Spokesman Rick Phillips of the J.R. Simplot Co., which owns the old mine dump, said tissue samples were taken from the sheep after they died on June 15.
The recently released toxicology reports confirmed the suspicions of Cutler and a consultant hired by Simplot that the animals died of selenium poisoning
Phillips said Simplot and the Dredge family have an agreement that allows the rancher to graze sheep on Simplot ground with the understanding that the company’s reclaimed mining sites can contain high amounts of selenium.
“We have a good relationship with the Dredge family, so we’re not worried about them, that problem will take care of itself,” Phillips said. “Right now, we just want to focus on the cause of the problem and what we can do to correct it. We don’t want it to happen again.”
Dredge was not available for comment.
According to Cutler, the sheep died within 48 hours after drinking from the spring, an indication they were poisoned rather than suffering from a disease.
“Selenium can really hit them fast,” Cutler said. “It’s over as quickly as it starts.”
Since 1996, when a herd of horses died from selenium poisoning, the phosphate mining industry in Caribou County has spent millions of dollars studying the problem.
Phillips said studies have been done on horses, fish, birds and big game animals.
But so far the only animals to die from confirmed cases of selenium poisoning have been domestic livestock.
“The difference is that elk and deer move around a lot and don’t hang around one water source or one food source for very long,” Phillips said. “The sheep are forced to stay in one spot. The herders camp them in one place until they’ve harvested the grass. Then they move on.”
No studies have been conducted on sheep, Phillips said, but that is likely to change.
More than 200 sheep have died from selenium poisoning since the fall of 1999.
Idaho State Journal
July 22, 2001
Industry, environment must be a dual concern:
BLM, Simplot need to join forces in land-friendly methods to improve phosphate mining.
The Bureau of Land Management and the J.R. Simplot Co. have an opportunity to preserve a vital industry in southeast Idaho, but the agency and the corporation must remain steadfast in their commitment to the environment.
Today’s news that between 150 and 160 sheep died last month, thanks in part to the company’s lack of reclamation know-how years ago, best illustrates the need for Simplot to lead the phosphate mining industry in finding better ways to rebuild the land once the mining has panned out.
The sheep died after drinking from a spring tainted with selenium. The selenium, a waste product from the phosphate mining process, was probably filtered out of apile of mining debris where it ended up in the groundwater. The groundwater later surfaces as a spring on private property downhill from the mine dump. The sheep drank from the spring, and in two days, they were dead.
The Smoky Canyon phosphate mine near located in Caribou County near the Wyoming line has, in the past, probably contributed high levels of selenium to surface soils, plants and water.
In addition to the sheep deaths last month, about 60 sheep died in the fall of 1999 after grazing near a mine dump northeast of Soda Springs, and in 1996, a herd of horses died as a result of selenium toxicosis.
Research conducted in the area since the mid-1990s determined the methods used to reclaim spent phosphate mines were faulty and selenium deposits that would normally be found well beneath the soil surface ended up near the top of a filled-in pit.
According to scientists with the government and officers from several area phosphate producers, the simple solution to the problem would be to backfill pits with the selenium deposits going in first and ending up at the bottom of the reclaimed holes.
Now that we know the problem exists, there’s no reason we can’t correct it. And, according to a plan by Simplot, future reclamation efforts done at least by that company will take the selenium issue into account.
We’re encouraged by the company’s approach to future reclamation work, although it would be nice if there were some assurances the new plans will work effectively. One of the problems with open-pit mining is that there always seem to be debris left in unsightly piles after a pit has been filled. These piles, called overburden, can contain high amounts of selenium and they too must be dealt with.
Simplot, in a plan accompanying the BLM’s latest environmental impact statement focusing on the Smoky Canyon mine and the selenium issue, proposes covering the overburden piles with more than 10 feet of chert and topsoil — a capping procedure that should prevent dangerous amounts of selenium from leaching into the groundwater. Vegetation that’s less likely to absorb selenium would be used to reclaim the stacks of overburden.
It sounds like a good plan, like the best science has been applied to the problem and the best possible solution has been found.
Now, it’s incumbent upon Simplot, and the BLM as the initial response agency, to conduct the reclamation work correctly and effectively. The future of the phosphate industry in southeast Idaho may depend on decreasing the impact the activity has on the ecosystem. If the mining and subsequent reclamation process are done conscientiously, the industry has a bright future — according to some experts, the remaining phosphate deposits in our region could keep miners busy for another 80 years.
If the work is done carelessly, it’s likely the industry will find itself bogged down in legal paperwork and the cost of doing business might soon exceed its profitability. To protect themselves, Simplot and other phosphate mining companies need to take into account that their activity is but a temporary disturbance on the land. If done correctly, that temporary disturbance should not leave behind a dangerous environmental legacy.