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Intro: "It was the two-headed baby trout that got everyone's attention. 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."

This photo of a two-headed trout comes from a report commissioned by Idaho-based J.R. Simplot, a phosphate mining company operating in eastern Idaho. (photo: Simplot/Fish & Wildlife Service/Public Domain)
This photo of a two-headed trout comes from a report commissioned by Idaho-based J.R. Simplot, a phosphate mining company operating in eastern Idaho. (photo: Simplot/Fish & Wildlife Service/Public Domain)



Mutated Trout Raise New Concerns Near Mine Sites

By Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times

25 February 12

 

t was the two-headed baby trout that got everyone’s attention.

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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+18 # Regina 2012-02-25 11:56
The two-headed trout goes well with the eyeless Gulf shrimp. Sen. Barbara Boxer expresses concern about the "science" monitored by the mining corporation -- they don't research any science, they just mine money. Industry is blighting the entire planet for money, which they proceed to invest in further ruin. And of course they spend a bundle (thanks to the new, now-tainted Supreme Court) to buy legislators who rail against regulation. If we don't put a tight leash on this corruption now, there will be nothing left for the earth other than "malformations. "
 
 
+3 # Glen 2012-02-25 14:58
Two headed trout, even in hatcheries, are not unusual. I do hope these folks can prove the relation, because there are many deformities even without pollution. Gotta fight there companies, however, simply because they are being allowed too much freedom.
 
 
+6 # NOMINAE 2012-02-25 17:50
Quoting Glen:
Two headed trout, even in hatcheries, are not unusual.


@ Glen

Boy, that's a relief ! Because, if you got to the last paragraph in the article, you may have noted that: "David Janz, an aquatic toxicology professor at the University of Saskatchewan who took part in the peer review" is quoted as saying: "In my research, I have seen lots of malformed baby fish, but never one with two heads."

So, apparently Glen has done a *LOT* more research than the experts actually involved in studying this phenomenon.

You, GO, guy !
 
 
+3 # Billy Bob 2012-02-25 20:00
Glen may be wrong, but don't question his motives. He's as liberal as you are. I think he just doesn't want miners to have any out by saying, "we didn't cause it".
 
 
0 # Glen 2012-02-26 15:05
I'm not wrong, Billy, just hoping folks will use true research in proving the effects of pollution. That pollution is actually happening so lets be certain it is proven scientifically to prevent any blowback from industry.
 
 
+2 # Glen 2012-02-26 15:02
Nominae, when I left teaching I worked 10 years in a trout hatchery that provided trout for all cold waters in this state, and was affiliated with same for 30 years. Eggs were harvested from a brood stock, as well as imported from other hatcheries, both east and west.

When the eyed eggs were close to hatching and then hatching, the babies were transferred from the large hatching jars to troughs, then round tank inserts. It was very easy to observe developing babies, and any deformities. Believe me, out of 250,000 eggs, there will be deformities, not because of being hatched at a facility, but because out of so many thousands of eggs, just as in human development. There will be deformities. That is true in any stream, also, should there be enough eggs.

The trout pictured here are not actually two headed. They were sharing the same egg sack as two trout. There is also a deformity that causes an inability to swim in a straight line, therefore they spin in place.

There are many issues when life is concerned and always the possibility of deformity. Having said that, we must be certain to not allow more, and worse deformities or poisoning, due to pollution.
 
 
0 # NOMINAE 2012-02-26 21:34
@ Glen

I sincerely appreciate your well-informed background, and the time you take to address this question.

I have trouble conceiving that, left to clean, unpolluted nature, the mutation rate for stream raised brown trout would be as high as that which you witnessed in the artificial environment of the hatchery. Perhaps eggs per million, rather than eggs per quarter-million such as you observed.

I will not, however, challenge your knowledge on the subject, but will seek, rather, to benefit from your background.

I am sure that you recall the astonishing (to the uninitiated) number of mutations appearing in frogs that became a prominent science news story a few years back ?

Scientists did not accept that rate of mutation as a "normal level" to be expected from nature. Instead, they launched a full-out investigation and came to the scientific conclusion that these bizarre mutations in the amphibians were being caused by agricultural chemical run-off, and even residential lawn-care chemical runoff, ending up in the ponds, streams and rivers of our ecosystem.

What do you think would have been the result of observing the rates of mutations in amphibians and just assuming that such a rate were "natural" before the research came in ?

It would have doubtless been a huge boon to the agricultural and lawn chemicals industry, but it would have been rather poor science.
 
 
0 # Glen 2012-02-27 07:30
Your contribution is relevant and backs up my point on being careful to prevent further pollution. Mutations, though, are not necessarily deleterious to humans consuming fish. The cumulative effects of chemicals in the fish's system would be, just as it is in oysters.

Amphibians are extremely sensitive and therefore more susceptible to environmental pressures. That is the main reason folks should pay a great deal of attention to them. They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine in alerting the planet to pollution or any pressure that could affect most living things. There have been huge die offs of frogs, and in some cases no reason could be found.

I'm not saying to accept mutations; I'm saying to research the occurrence carefully to enable correct science to be presented to deter a challenge on the part of industry. Offering a photograph as the one in the article is inaccurate in that it isn't showing a two headed trout. Two heads means one body, two heads. That is where these scientists must be careful, in addition to providing evidence of excessive pollution.
 
 
+2 # Kootenay Coyote 2012-02-25 15:49
‘... a standard of 7.9 parts per million in fish tissue would be enough to protect all but 20 percent of aquatic populations...’.

Right: just toss one fifth of all the living things away - can’t do anyone a bit of harm, eh? In fact, that would be a good general loss value - we’ve already started in the Midd4e East. & who cares, anyway?
 
 
0 # NOMINAE 2012-02-25 17:59
@ Kootenay Coyote

Good point. And, while selenium may not represent a direct threat to humans, the act of consuming fish that have totally whacked-out DNA is a *radically* different story.

Even at levels of toxicity just below that required to produce two-headed mutants, we are still talking about a major food-fish in reference to brown trout.
 
 
0 # Willman 2012-02-25 19:53
The large corporations (people) continue to insist on "their" entitlements.

Corporate welfare at the behest of the corporations.An d supported by our countries finest "conservatives".
Lets see the big shots of Simplot eat the fish from this creek as a steady diet.
 
 
0 # NOMINAE 2012-02-26 21:53
@Willman - Well said!

J.R.Simplot corporation does indeed *have* mines, but they are primarily a giant agricultural chemicals corporation.

Therefore, they are more than a little "invested" in *muting* research proving that agricultural chemical run off produces astonishing mutations in aquatic life.

This correlation was more than amply proven recently in the case of nationally mutated frogs, and for even more years in fish.

When the Willamette River in Oregon was cleaned up, and laws were passed regulating the dumping of agricultural and residential lawn care chemicals into the river, the number of fish mutations drastically dropped.

Simplot phosphorus mines are necessary, of course, to produce Simplot Phosphorus Fertilizer, the run off from which is at least as dangerous as selenium to *both* fish and humans, and, naturally, to the humans who consume the fish.

The poison cycle just never ends ......... just to make the almighty buck which will not even be worthwhile to pass on the robber baron's own children. None of us can eat and/or drink money.
 
 
+2 # Dorcas Black 2012-02-25 22:37
A fundamental problem in the U.S. is that corporations, developers, or others that want to impact the environment are required to do their own studies and prepare their own environmental impact statements. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house!

I've seen these sorts of biased reports again and again. The supposedly "independent" environmental research firms are beholden to their corporate employers, so the reports they prepare always minimize the potential harm and paint the development, mine, industrial plant, or whatever in the best possible light. Change the laws and require the government to hire the environmental assessment firms at the corporation's expense. While that might still not be perfect, it would be a good bit better than the current system.
 
 
+1 # RLF 2012-02-26 06:13
And scientists wonder why no one trust them! Time for the sciences to clean up these unethical studies and throw the writers out of the colleges and universities they inhabit...other wise science in general can not hold up to scrutiny.
 
 
+1 # sandyclaws 2012-02-26 06:58
"protect all but 20 percent of aquatic populations from chronic deformities" The EPA said this was okay? Is it okay if 1 in five of your children were born with 2 heads?
 
 
+1 # Activista 2012-02-26 13:08
not scientific - but
"In September 2009, Fallujah General Hospital, Iraq, had 170 new born babies, 24% of whom were dead within the first seven days, a staggering 75% of the dead babies were classified as deformed.
This can be compared with data from the month of August in 2002 where there were 530 new born babies of whom six were dead within the first seven days and only one birth defect was reported"

- Fatima Ahmed was born in Fallujah with deformities that include two heads ..
thewe.cc/weplanet/news/depleted_uranium_iraq_afghanistan_balkans.html
Is there a study/statistic al analysis of children born with deformities?
 
 
0 # Valleyboy 2012-02-27 08:15
Wow, it's like the 2 headed fish by the nuclear power plant at the start of The Simpsons...
Life imitating art eh?!
 

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