Federal regulators are concerned that a dam built by Monsanto Co. earlier this year to trap phosphate mine runoff may be stopping more than just pollution.
They say the dam has also halted millions of gallons of water in Sheep Creek that would otherwise help fill the Blackfoot River.
The Environmental Protection Agency now wants the maker of Roundup herbicide to begin a costly treatment to remove selenium and heavy metals, then discharge clean water downstream, instead of capturing it in a 50-million-gallon lake behind the dam and using it for dust control on its mining roads.
The situation shows the predicament that companies like St. Louis-based Monsanto and the government face in Idaho’s rich-but-polluted phosphate mining country not far from Yellowtone National Park: They must work to contain naturally occurring poisons unearthed during a century of digging, while protecting water supplies in an agricultural state hit hard by drought over the last decade.
The aim is to avoid killing streams just to save them.
“We support efforts to reduce selenium discharges to the creek, but we have serious concerns about the methods Monsanto is using, which is drying up the creek,” said Mark Ryan, a federal Clean Water Act attorney for the EPA in Boise, on Wednesday. “We want to see it (the water) treated and put back into the creek where it belongs.”
In 2007, the EPA warned Monsanto that selenium- and heavy metal-tainted water being flushed from the waste rock dump below the South Rasmussen Ridge Mine into Sheep Creek violated the federal Clean Water Act.
Sheep Creek runs into the Blackfoot River, and both are on the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s list of 15 waterways that exceed selenium contamination standards.
Traces of selenium are needed by most animals including humans, but the element is toxic in large amounts.
Mines owned by Monsanto, Boise-based J.R. Simplot Co., and Agrium Inc. of Canada in the so-called phosphate patch near the Idaho-Wyoming border have captured public attention since selenium pollution began killing hundreds of livestock starting in the 1990s, including 18 cattle last August.
Monsanto got a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit in early April to erect a roughly 20-foot dam below the dump. It also has rights to the water it has trapped behind the dam.
Trent Clark, a Monsanto spokesman in Soda Springs, said Wednesday the company is seeking ways to eventually resume the flow of snowmelt and rain from its waste rock dump into Sheep Creek. He added that springs below the dam continue to flow into Sheep Creek and those meet federal clean water standards.
For now, the new dam is working to keep pollution in one place.
“None of that water is actually leaving the containment area,” Clark said. “The next challenge is to find a solution that allows the free flow of the water without contaminants.”
State officials said June 16 they planned to visit the site in coming weeks to make sure Monsanto’s dam doesn’t significantly reduce water flows into the Blackfoot River.
“We hope this is an interim measure, and that a long-term remediation plan is yet coming,” said Bruce Olenick, regional administrator in the Department of Environmental Quality’s Pocatello office.