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Dairy Syncline Phosphate Mine – Privatization of public lands

Dairy Syncline Phosphate Mine

J.R. Simplot Company wants to get its hands on public lands as part of its plan to develop an open pit phosphate mine in southeastern Idaho. The Dairy Syncline Mine proposal covers more than 2,000 acres and relies on a public lands sale (Bureau of Land Management) and a land exchange (Forest Service) to site a tailings pond. Selenium brought to the surface by open pit phosphate mining is already a problem in this southwestern corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, contaminating nearby streams and killing horses, sheep and cattle. It has also been linked to the development of two-headed fish. The area already has two Superfund sites due to phosphate mining and the Dairy Syncline Mine threatens to exacerbate these problems.

Dairy Syncline Mine Location

Dairy Syncline Mine

Developing an open pit phosphate mine is a one-way ticket to toxic waters and poisoned wildlife.

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Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Dairy Syncline Mine – The Details

The J.R. Simplot Company is looking to privatize public lands as part of its plan for another open pit phosphate mine in southeastern Idaho. While Simplot owns two leases underneath the Caribou National Forest that give it rights to mine for phosphate, the multi-national corporation wants federal land for the mine’s tailings pond. Simplot has proposed exchanging 640 acres of its own land nearby for 631 acres of Caribou National Forest land, and purchasing 1,142 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Federal law prohibits tailings ponds on National Forest lands, and BLM policy also discourages such facilities on the public lands it manages, so Simplot is banking on privatization to get its mine up and running.

Phosphate is a primary material used in the production of fertilizer. Monsanto also uses phosphate in manufacturing its Roundup™ herbicide. Southeastern Idaho, already home to two phosphate mining-related Superfund sites, is a primary phosphate source in the U.S. Earlier phosphate mining has unearthed toxic levels of selenium that killed horses, cattle and hundreds of sheep. It is especially deadly to aquatic egg-bearing animals, including native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the prized game fish and iconic species of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Two segments of the local Blackfoot River and 15 of its tributaries, are contaminated by selenium well in excess of Idaho’s legal limit.

In 2012, Simplot petitioned the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to allow selenium concentrations in Idaho waters at a level higher than advised by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Remarkably, a study submitted in support of the petition included pictures of trout fry with two heads and other deformities. The fry had been hatched from fish captured in a creek downstream of Simplot’s Smoky Canyon Mine, just a few miles east of the proposed Dairy Syncline mine. The study nonetheless concluded it was safe to raise permitted selenium levels.

In November 2019, the Forest Service and BLM published the Final EIS for Simplot’s proposal, opening a 30-day comment period. Although Simplot’s two leases convey a right to mine, the Forest Service and BLM are obligated to deny the land exchange and sale if the transactions are not in the public interest. WildEarth Guardians is working closely with allies to review the FEIS and ensure that public interests, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat are protected.

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