Image by Bonnie Gestring/Earthworks showing the Smoky Canyon Mine in southeast Idaho, also owned by Simplot and mainly mined for phosphate ore
(By Christina Stucker-Gassi & Sidney Fellows, NCAP Program Staff)
Recently, the hard work of many paid off when a federal judge blocked a permit that had previously been granted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the Caldwell Canyon Mine outside of Soda Springs in Southeast Idaho.1 This permit was submitted by the multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company and common household name Bayer. In 2018, Bayer acquired Monsanto and the mine near Soda Springs is reported to be a major piece of the supply chain for global glyphosate manufacturing.2 Glyphosate = Roundup, the herbicide stirring up so much controversy, not to mention super weeds that, according to field reports, are becoming a bigger issue in the region. In related news a settlement was reached between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Simplot Corporation related to another phosphate refining facility in Southeast Idaho.2
In this overview of phosphate mining in our region, we cover the mining itself, talk about the length that the chemical lobby goes to prop up the status quo, and then circle back on the importance of NCAP’s mission: to protect community and environmental health and inspire the use of ecologically sound solutions to reduce the use of pesticides.
The Threats Posed by Idaho Phosphate Mining
Phosphate mining involves strip mining vast areas of land, resulting in the displacement of plants and animals and irreparable damage to natural habitats.3 This destructive process leads to the loss of valuable ecosystems that support a diverse range of wildlife. NCAP is connected to this issue through education like this, advocacy, as well as on the ground activities to help address the harm these facilities have caused.
In an excellent Civil Eats article from 2019 about these controversial mines, now retired minerals branch chief for the BLM’s field office in Pocatello, Idaho, Jeff Cundick reported that 17,000 acres of land in Idaho are disturbed due to phosphate mining. In addition, about 7,000 acres are slated for development, and another 50,000 acres have been identified as potentially profitable phosphate reserves.3 This area is the second largest U.S. reserve, after the reserves in Florida.4
The acidic wastewater generated during phosphate mining contains various contaminants, including heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, copper, and zinc. These heavy metals can have toxic effects on soil, microflora, other organisms, and human health and can accumulate in agricultural soils, posing risks to crop quality and food safety.5
Phosphogypsum, a solid material left behind after the phosphate ore is processed, presents its own set of concerns. It contains elevated levels of radium and other radioactive elements, making proper disposal crucial to prevent environmental contamination and potential health hazards.1 Phosphogypsum is managed by Simplot and stored in large gypstacks above Pocatello, ID.
The recent settlement requires Simplot to implement process modifications at the facility to improve hazardous waste management and reduce emissions. Nearly $150 million will be spent on technology to recover and reuse phosphate content within the wastes generated by the facility. Simplot will provide $200,000 specifically to fund environmental mitigation work, administered by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality in collaboration with the City of Pocatello and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.
Some other highlights include that Simplot:
- Pay a civil penalty of $1.5 million.
- Cease the operation of cooling towers by June 27, 2026, replacing them with newly constructed cooling ponds to significantly reduce fluoride emissions.
- Revise Toxic Release Inventory forms for the years 2004-2013 to include estimates of certain metal compounds used at the facility.
- Establish a plan with $108 million of funding for the future closure and long-term care of the gypstack.
The cumulative impact of contaminants from phosphate mining poses a significant threat to water sources, wildlife, Indigenous Peoples’ lifeways, and the overall ecological balance. It is imperative to address these environmental challenges and implement stringent regulations for future phosphate mining sites to minimize the adverse effects of phosphate mining on surrounding ecosystems and communities. Recent actions related to phosphate mining in Southeast Idaho are a step in the right direction.
Efforts by the Chemical Lobby to Protect the Status Quo
But what if there is backsliding on future mining permits? The chemical lobby, composed of influential industry groups and companies, has a vested interest in protecting the status quo and resisting regulatory changes that could curtail their operations. These entities employ various strategies to shape public opinion, influence policymakers, and maintain their dominance in the market.
One common tactic employed by the chemical lobby is the dissemination of disinformation campaigns through funding studies, publishing industry-funded research, and promoting misleading narratives. A report chronicles these tactics. For example, the environmental and health risks associated with glyphosate continue to be downplayed.6 These efforts aim to create doubt and confusion among the public and policymakers, making it challenging to implement effective regulations.
Furthermore, the chemical lobby engages in extensive lobbying activities to influence legislation and regulatory processes. For example in June of 2023 a bill was introduced that would not only limit state and local governments from regulating pesticides in a way that is more restrictive but not counter to federal regulations, but would hinder California's efforts to require glyphosate to have a Prop 65 warning which indicates to consumers a significant risk of cancer.7
To counter the influence of the chemical lobby, it is crucial for policymakers and the public to remain vigilant, rely on independent scientific research, and prioritize the long-term wellbeing of ecosystems and communities. Increased transparency, robust conflict-of-interest policies, and public education initiatives can help create a more level playing field, ensuring that regulatory decisions are based on sound science and the best interests of society.
The Impact of Glyphosate
Largely as a result of Roundup Ready corn and soy, use of glyphosate in the U.S. spiked 3,100 percent between 1990 and 2014, by which point 94 percent of soybeans and 92 percent of corn acreage in the U.S. were Roundup Ready.8
Glyphosate, the most widely used pesticide globally, has become a subject of concern due to link to cancer in humans, as well as harm to more than 1,600 of the plant and animal species protected under the Endangered Species Act.9 According to sworn testimony from P4—a subsidiary of Bayer AG and intervenor in this matter—phosphate extracted from the Caldwell Canyon mine is a vital component for producing and distributing glyphosate globally.1
Shifting Toward Sustainable Practices
In a 2022 report on the world’s reliance on mined phosphate, James Elser, an ecologist with Arizona State University and the University of Montana remarked on just how embedded we are in destructive pursuit: “That we've been able to mobilize phosphorus from these ancient geological deposits, and spread it around the world enough so that half of soil phosphorus is now comprised of industrial anthropogenic fertilizer, is pretty stunning,” he says. The reliance on mined phosphate and the widespread use of glyphosate highlight the urgent need to transition to sustainable agricultural practices. Sustainable agriculture promotes alternatives to harsh chemicals, such as organic farming, biofertilizers, composting, and the use of biocontrol agents.10 These practices prioritize the long-term health of ecosystems, protect water sources, and safeguard human health. Reducing our dependence on mined phosphate and glyphosate requires a shift toward regenerative cycles and the integration of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge into public sector scientific research. This area can be supported more, for example the Organic Science and Research Investment Act makes the ID and facilitation of TEK a legislative priority, subject to free, prior, and informed consent from Tribal nations.11
Complementarily, promoting agroecological practices that focus on crop diversification, conservation agriculture (that doesn’t reply on unchecked herbicide use to manage residues), and precision farming (as long as it’s accessible for small-mid scale independent farmers) can contribute to sustainable food production systems while reducing the reliance on harmful inputs.
Recent court rulings and fines related to phosphate mining in Idaho highlight the urgency of addressing the adverse impacts of phosphate mining. Furthermore, the concerns surrounding the use of glyphosate underscore the need to shift toward sustainable agricultural practices. By embracing organic farming, promoting agroecological and regenerative approaches, and entwined Indigenous led food sovereignty work, and by cultivating the public and political will to minimize the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, we can protect water sources, preserve habitats, and promote human and environmental health. No small task, but we can all agree it is crucial to prioritize the long-term sustainability of our food systems and ecosystems over short-term gains from destructive mining practices and pesticide reliance.
- Biological Diversity, "EPA Nixes Approval of Idaho Phosphate Mine." https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/federal-judge-nixes-approval-of-idaho-phosphate-mine-2023-06-05/
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "United States Announces Settlement with J.R. Simplot to Improve Hazardous Waste Management and Reduce Emissions at Idaho Facility." https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/united-states-announces-settlement-jr-simplot-improve-hazardous-waste-management-and
- Civil Eats, "Roundup's Other Problem: Glyphosate is Sourced from Controversial Mines." https://civileats.com/2019/06/24/roundups-other-problem-glyphosate-is-sourced-from-controversial-mines/
- Biological Diversity, "America's Frightening Phosphate Problem: Phosphate Mining's Significant Threats to America's Water and Wildlife." https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/phosphate_mining/
- Springer, "Fertilizers and Pesticides: Their Impact on Soil Health and Environment." https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-44364-1_15
- U.S. Right to Know, "Pesticide Industry Disinformation: What's at Stake? Health, Climate, Biodiversity." https://usrtk.org/industry-pr/pesticide-industry-disinformation-whats-at-stake-health-climate-and-biodiversity/
- Van Suan. "Congressional Bill Would Curtail State Health and Environmental Protections “Blatant attempt” to preempt cancer warnings and pesticide limits by states and localities " Accessed July 13, 2023. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FRjkubfcnYLFFss4svt0C3e6c41lZnVI/view?usp=sharing
- U.S. Right to Know. "Merchants of Poison Report." Accessed July 13, 2023. https://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Merchants_of_Poison_Report_final_120522.pdf
- Center for Biological Diversity. "EPA: Two Most Widely Used Pesticides Likely Harm Majority of Endangered Species." Accessed July 13, 2023. https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/epa-two-most-widely-used-pesticides-likely-harm-majority-of-endangered-species-2021-11-15/
- James Elser, "The World's Farms Are Hooked on Phosphorus. It's a Problem," Nature 603, no. 8145 (2022): 178-180. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-022-01092-0.epdf
- OFRF (Organic Farming Research Foundation). "OSRI 1-pager." OFRF, 2023. Accessed July 13, 2023. https://ofrf.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/OSRI-1-pager.pdf