Farmers in the western United States and the Idaho phosphate industry live in a symbiotic relationship (see “Building trust,” June 3, 2010). Agrium, Monsanto and Simplot all obtain raw materials from phosphate deposits running along the Idaho-Wyoming state line. From this they manufacture critical farm nutrients and weed management tools to keep small town farmers’ markets and Pacific-bound barges full of nutritious and affordable food.
These companies are solid long-term employers, contributors to local and regional economies, actively underpinning the civic and social welfare of the communities where they operate. Thousands of aspiring track and field stars thrill to their first sense of achievement at the Simplot Games. Monsanto is a frequent and long-time underwriter of programming on Idaho Public Television. At this year’s Tigert Middle School in Soda Springs, Idaho, only one company was honored to be present at the handing out of diplomas: Agrium, in recognition for “their many contributions to public education.”
In the last decade each of these companies has won praise through the Idaho Mined Lands Reclamation Awards for some aspect of their mining reclamation. All three companies have made significant investment in implementing new and advanced technologies for protecting ecosystems while mining, and restoring mined land to health afterward.
These companies exemplify care and concern for their workers. All three operate “Star” plants in southeast Idaho, facilities recognized by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for having the highest degree of voluntary worker protection. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s “Sentinels of Safety” award has been awarded more than once in this mining region.
Which is why a suggestion, metaphorical no doubt, that the phosphate fields of southeast Idaho are comparable to the oil pervading the Gulf of Mexico is irresponsible in the extreme. Besides our work in communities and with employees, we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously. Recent stories of high selenium levels are driven by improved methods of monitoring, diagnosis and detection, not by a growing ecological challenge. In fact, in 2003, these reports prompted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate. Its report, posted on www.IdahoSelenium.com, finds the phosphate-mining region poses “no apparent health hazard.”
The management of selenium brought to the surface by mining is a challenge all over the world. Science suggests that very small amounts can affect unique species in different ways. Some warm-water fish are highly sensitive to selenium, showing effects at parts per billion. The Idaho phosphate industry has spent millions of dollars working with state and federal agencies to study selenium in the environment, develop new mining methods and implement measures to address the effects of past mining practices.
Few in the oil industry rise in defense of the persistent oil slick growing in the Gulf. But the Idaho Mining Association will readily defend the commitment and track record of our phosphate producers. They are examples of responsible stewardship: aggressively addressing the environmental concerns from the past while continuing to provide our nation’s agriculture with the means to feed a hungry world.
Executive Vice President
Idaho Mining Association