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Lawsuit challenges Trump administration approval of southeast Idaho phosphate mine
In 2019 the Bureau of Land Management approved the mine on some 1,559 acres of ecologically important land that’s essential to the imperiled greater sage grouse and other species.
Phosphate from the mine will be used by the German multinational chemical company Bayer AG to manufacture glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides. Glyphosate has been linked to cancer and harm in hundreds of endangered plants and animals.
“When it’s sprayed, Roundup affects everything from human health to our most vulnerable endangered species,” said Ashley Bruner, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This lawsuit highlights that mining phosphate for the production of Roundup also has significant consequences for wildlife.”
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the United States and worldwide, with about 280 million pounds a year used across 285 million acres in U.S. agriculture alone. Its total volume of application increased by a factor of 12 from 1995 to 2014. This increase was largely driven by the adoption of crops like corn and soy that are genetically engineered to withstand what would normally be a fatal dousing of glyphosate.
The World Health Organization’s cancer-research arm considers glyphosate a probable carcinogen, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that glyphosate is likely to “adversely affect,” that is, harm, 93% of all federally threatened or endangered species.
An environmental review of the proposed mine failed to account for increased selenium pollution to waterways and wildlife, increased radioactive waste and heavy metal pollution resulting from the processing of phosphate ore, and harm to critically imperiled sage grouse.
Selenium — a byproduct of phosphate mining — has already caused extensive damage to surface and groundwaters in the region, which will only get worse with increased mining. Selenium pollution has been linked to the deaths of hundreds of cows in southeast Idaho and has caused deformities and other harms in birds, aquatic animals and other wildlife.
“Southeast Idaho has been burdened by the legacy of phosphate mines, with more than ten federal hazardous waste, or Superfund, sites in the region,” said Chris Krupp, public lands advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “The Caldwell Canyon Mine will generate additional selenium pollution, when selenium concentrations in the Blackfoot River already exceed Idaho water-quality standards. More selenium in fragile ecosystems is the last thing the region needs.”
The Caldwell Canyon Mine Project will also harm roughly 1,000 acres of sage grouse habitat, including sensitive breeding and nesting grounds for the small and declining East Idaho Uplands sage grouse population. The sage grouse is an iconic western bird species whose population has plummeted range-wide in recent decades.
“The southeast Idaho population of greater sage grouse is small and vulnerable,” said Erik Molvar, executive director for Western Watersheds Project. “The Bureau of Land Management keeps approving phosphate mine after phosphate mine in this corner of their habitat, without adequate safeguards. To recover sage grouse for the benefit of future generations, this has to stop.”
Ore from the mine will be processed at the Bayer AG Soda Springs Plant (formerly owned by Monsanto Company), which was listed as a Superfund site in 1990 for, among other things, selenium and heavy-metal contamination of groundwater. Nearly two decades later, groundwater contamination at the Soda Springs Plant still pollutes the area and is contributing to surface-water contamination that violates Idaho water-quality standards in several nearby streams and creeks.
Today’s lawsuit was filed by Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians. The conservation groups are represented by the Center for Biological Diversity and Advocates for the West.