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Mutant two-headed trout spur scrutiny of mine pollution

SODA SPRINGS, Idaho - Here’s an image you usually don’t see without the help of Photoshop: two-headed fish. Pictures of deformed baby trout with two heads show up in a study of creeks in a remote part of southeast Idaho.

The study examined the effects of a contaminant called selenium. It comes from a nearby mine owned by the agribusiness giant, J.R. Simplot. Critics say the two-headed trout have implications beyond a couple of Idaho creeks.

Marv Hoyt stands near Sage Creek in a baseball cap he normally doesn’t like to wear out here. It says Greater Yellowstone Coalition, his employer. The environmental group hasn’t won many friends in Idaho’s phosphate mining district.

Hoyt’s been arguing for years that mine pollution might be hurting fish. Then, last year a study made that prospect more than just “might be.”

“I sort of held my breath as I read that executive summary on the first page," Hoyt says. "And once I had gotten through that first page, it was like 'Wow. We were right. This is a disaster in the making.’”

The study he’s talking about was a federal review of another study on native Yellowstone cutthroat trout and brown trout. Phosphate mining exposes selenium, an element that’s toxic in large amounts. That research paper held the first photographic evidence of what selenium does to the fish here.

“There were thousands, literally thousands and thousands of deformed fish that are the progeny of fish that came from this stream right here," Hoyt explains. "And the most striking of course and the one that seems to grab everyone’s attention is photos of two-headed trout. Really extreme deformities.”

The report uses the term “unusual.”

“I would say that would be unusual,” Hoyt says.

Especially when you consider the source. The two-headed fish photos were in the back of a report commissioned by the J.R. Simplot company, which mines phosphate for making fertilizers.

The report is meant to bolster the company’s application to continue to allow higher levels of selenium in the water. And the researchers concluded that selenium levels above the national standards would not significantly impact the fish.

The J.R. Simplot company declined to be interviewed for this story. But company spokesman David Cuoio told the Associated Press in February that Simplot is aware of the contamination and is working with state and federal agencies to address it.

In fact, the study was reviewed by a number of those agencies. In comments on the report, the EPA said it was of “outstanding quality.” The agency is even using the study to help develop its national standard for selenium.

Justin Hayes is with the Idaho Conservation League, the state’s largest environmental organization. As far as the two-headed fish go, he says he’s waiting for more science.

“The two-headed fish doesn’t necessarily prove they’re right or prove they’re wrong," Hayes says. "It just proves that ultimately, if you put enough selenium in water, awful things will happen to fish. And you need to avoid that.”

But there’s another study. One that takes issue with how the researchers hired by Simplot interpreted their data.

Remember the report that made Marv Hoyt hold his breath? This second study was written by a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The biologist says the earlier Simplot study undercounted deformity rates. Instead of 20 percent, the new review suggested the rate may be closer to 70 percent.

In other words, the norm.

That’s not surprising to someone who researched pollution from Idaho’s phosphate mines back in 1999.

“That’s essentially something I would have expected to happen in that area. So this is basically almost an I told you so,” says Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

He says the EPA is revisiting its decades-old selenium standards. And the dueling studies in southeast Idaho could have an impact on how strict those standards will ultimately be.

“The smoking gun of course is the two-headed trout," Lemly says. "Because once you see that condition, you know you’ve got a serious problem. So there’s no basis -- no credible basis -- for changing the standard at that site, nor for letting it become something that could be expanded to other locations.”

The closest town in Idaho to Simplot’s mine is Soda Springs, about 23 miles to the west. Since the 1950s, this former frontier outpost has depended on jobs at the local mines.

Linda Anderson owns the furniture shop downtown. She’s sold a lot of furniture to families of workers from the phosphate mines and processing plants over the years.

“It’s our bread and butter. It means a lot to have this industry here," Anderson says. "We’ve had times when other areas have been hit bad by unemployment and there’s usually a job for somebody here.”

Anderson says she’s heard about the contamination -- even bought a water purifier for her tap. But she shrugs it off. Every town has its problems, she says.

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Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.