As concern over the health and environmental risks of the most-used herbicide mount, the ecological impact of its sourcing from phosphate mines are equally problematic.
As concern over the health and environmental risks of the most-used herbicide mount, the ecological impact of its sourcing from phosphate mines are equally problematic.
June 24, 2019
Roundup, the world’s top herbicide, has been mired in controversy in recent months as the jurors in three court cases have found it causes cancer. Bayer Crop Science, the company that produces Roundup, has been ordered to pay billions of dollars in damages, and thousands of other cancer cases are pending in state and federal courts.
And while the majority of the nation’s corn, soybean, and cotton growers continue to use it, Roundup’s damage to soil health and history of producing herbicide-tolerant “superweeds” are also critical concerns to farmers and consumers.
Few people know that Roundup is equally contentious at its source.
Glyphosate, the herbicide’s main ingredient, isn’t manufactured in a lab, but originates in a mine. To produce it, phosphate ore is extracted and refined into elemental phosphorus. While Bayer, which recently bought Monsanto, touts its sustainable mining process, environmentalists contend that the process involves stripping away the soil off mountaintops, which destroys vegetation, contaminates water and creates noise and air pollution that is detrimental to wildlife and the environment for years to come.
For decades, Monsanto has quietly mined the phosphate ore in a remote corner of Southeast Idaho known as the phosphate patch. Because its current mine is nearly tapped out, Bayer has applied for a permit to start a new mine nearby. In May, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the final environmental impact statement analyzing the proposed mine. The agency will issue its final decision later this summer.
But opponents say the government has failed to properly analyze environmental damage, including impacts to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and a connecting regional wildlife corridor, the dwindling greater sage grouse population, and local Native American tribes who depend on the land and wildlife. They point to the cumulative impact of the proposed mine and a total of about 20 other inactive, active, and proposed mines in the phosphate patch, many of which are contaminated Superfund sites that will require years of cleanup.
“From the cradle to the grave, glyphosate is deeply problematic,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has submitted critical comments to the BLM on the project and is considering legal action. “The environmental costs begin with open-pit mines that destroy hundreds of acres of habitat critical to the survival of imperiled species and end with a pesticide that harms wildlife and people. It’s pretty disturbing.”
Phosphate has been mined in southeastern Idaho since the early 20th Century. The mineral was discovered in the state in 1903 and the first underground phosphate mine opened five years later, while the first phosphate surface mine started operating in 1940s. Today, Idaho is the nation’s second largest producer of phosphate ore (after Florida), with 15 percent of the U.S. yearly production.
Monsanto began exploring its first mine in the area in 1951. A year later, the company built the processing plant in nearby Soda Springs, today a town of about 3,000 people; it’s the only plant in North America that can refine phosphate ore into elemental phosphorus. Monsanto started selling Roundup in 1974 (earlier, it sold the phosphorus for use in washing detergent).
Over the years, Roundup brought Monsanto billions in annual gross profits and became the world’s most widely sprayed herbicide. To keep up with demand, the company has operated five mines (including one still active) in the phosphate patch. Other companies—J.R. Simplot Company, Agrium Inc., and Rhodia, among others—also mine the phosphate ore, mostly to make fertilizer. (Phosphate mining for fertilizer—a practice that was essential to the Green Revolution and still takes place all over the world—has also had a sizable impact on the environment.)
Currently, four mines are active in the area, and four more are proposed. Phosphate mining has thus far disturbed about 17,000 acres, most of it federal, state, and tribal land, said Jeff Cundick, minerals branch chief for the BLM’s field office in Pocatello, Idaho. In addition, about 7,000 acres are slated for development, and another 50,000 acres have been identified as potentially profitable phosphate reserves.
But that mining has come at a cost to the environment. It has scarred the area’s forested ridges and sagebrush-filled valleys, disturbing plants and animals. And it disgorged a hidden poison: In 1996, Cundick said, a local rancher discovered that his horses, whose pasture abutted a mine waste rock dump, had become lame, emaciated, and suffered from hoof lesions and hair loss. Testing showed that the plants and soil had very high concentrations of selenium, which had leached out of mine waste rock into groundwater, streams, and rivers.
An estimated 600 animals—mostly cattle—died from selenium poisoning from mines in the area. Sixteen contamination sites were assessed for cleanup under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program. Thirteen are now official Superfund sites and the others will likely be added to the list.
Bayer’s Soda Springs processing plant is also a Superfund site. In its most recent Five-Year Review of that site, the EPA found that groundwater contamination is continuing and “concentrations of surface water in locations where groundwater discharges to several streams and creeks exceed Idaho [water quality standards].” The review also states that remediation for selenium is happening slower than predicted and groundwater standards “will not be achieved in the foreseeable future.” It says contaminated groundwater has spread beyond the property boundary of the facility and there are no safeguards or legal restrictions to prevent its use in Soda Springs.
Federal agencies have spent about $19 million since 2001 on investigating the contamination and some cleanup, according to the Government Accountability Office, roughly half of which was reimbursed by mine operators.
The phosphate ore that’s currently used to make Roundup is mined at the Blackfoot Bridge Mine near Soda Springs, in southeastern Idaho’s Caribou County, on public land administered by the BLM. That mine, which began operating in 2013, has enough ore supply to last until about 2022, according to Bayer. P4 Production LLC, a subsidiary of Bayer (and formerly of Monsanto), owns and operates the mining and processing facilities that produce the ore and turn it into phosphorus.
Bayer’s newly proposed project, the 1,559-acre Caldwell Canyon mine located just northeast of the town of Soda Springs, would start extracting ore in 2023 and operate for an estimated 40 years. It would disturb 1,559 acres—one-fourth of it public land, the rest private land.
At Caldwell Canyon, the ore would be extracted from two new open pits, hauled out by truck on a newly constructed road to an existing railroad load and transported daily to the Soda Spring processing plant by a train up to 130 rail cars long.
The BLM’s Cudnick said selenium leaching at the new mine won’t be an issue because that problem has been solved after a lot of research and monitoring.
To limit the amount of selenium in vegetation, he said, mining companies are required to put an earthen cap over the rock waste, then cover it with the original soil from the mountain (which must be saved). In some cases, they must also incorporate a geomembrane to reduce rain and snowmelt filtering through the rock waste and carrying selenium into groundwater.
“We’re trying to find a happy balance of protecting the environment and for mines to make enough money to employ local people, produce product for agriculture, and do the reclamation process,” Cudnick said. “We allow some limited impacts, all mining has impacts, but they have to meet the (federal and state standards) that have been set. Since 2000, we’ve operated on the mantra that we won’t approve a mine that will become a future Superfund site.”
Environmental advocates say selenium is only part of the problem. The impacts to humans, animals, and plants are countless, according to Connor with the Center for Biological Diversity. The mining strips away soil and destroys plants and trees. It contaminates groundwater. It is extremely loud, due to noise from machinery and blasting with high explosives. It impacts water quality. And it creates air pollution from the dust.
Bayer says the proposed mine will be “the most environmentally advanced” and innovative mine in the nation. “Our aim is to leave as few traces of mining as possible and, where feasible, leave the land in better condition than it was,” Bayer Crop Sciences spokeswoman Charla Lord said in a statement to Civil Eats. “Our approach is ecological restoration, which means holistically bringing back—in full function—the key environmental systems that were present before mining.” Lord said the company uses an advanced standard for land restoration under which parts of the environment critical to certain habitats must be identified before mining and then fully restored after mining.
But environmentalists disagree.
“Mining irredeemably changes the face of the land,” Connor said. “You have deep destruction for 40 years. The companies say they’ll go through a reclamation process … but looking at reclaimed land, you end up with a landscape that looks extremely different from what was there. It doesn’t have the same species, the same topography.”
The local Shoshone-Bannock Tribes are also unhappy with the proposed mine. Their reservation, located just northwest of the phosphate patch and home to more than 6,000 tribal members, was created in 1868. For millennia, they have hunted wild game, fished the region’s abundant streams and rivers, and collected native plants and roots for food and medicinal purposes. A treaty enshrines their inherent right to freely hunt “on the unoccupied lands of the United States.” But the phosphate mines —as well as cattle grazing and development—have slowly encroached on these activities.
“There is too much destruction on and around our reservation that affects our way of life,” Councilman Lee Juan Tyler said in a statement for Civil Eats. “I would like to see us all work together in keeping our environment pristine for all.”
A pristine environment, however, is further over the horizon, according to the tribes. The new mine would occupy the land and impact treaty rights and cultural activities, said Kelly Wright, the tribes’ environmental waste program manager. Mining would affect elk hunting and the gathering of culturally important plants such as berries, bitterroot, camas bulbs, flowering plants, and mushrooms. It would also impact sweat lodges, spiritual rituals, and journeys.
The BLM said the abundance of similar big game habitat and vegetation types near the Caldwell Canyon project should provide adequate opportunities for the tribes to exercise their rights to hunt, fish, gather, and conduct other traditional uses and practices, “making these short-term effects negligible.”
Wright said the tribe does use other areas when a mine closes off a piece of land, but the amount of unoccupied land in the area is shrinking and a new mine site also impacts wildlife on surrounding land.
“We understand that with technology new things are needed. But phosphate mines leave a big scar,” Wright said. “Mother Nature, it takes her a while to get things back to the swing of things.”
The phosphate patch sits just southwest of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. Environmental groups say the proposed mine site will impact the area around those parks, including a regionally significant wildlife corridor designated by the U.S. Forest Service which connects the park ecosystems and the northern Rockies to the Uintas Wilderness and southern Rockies. The corridor is part of the 6,000 mile Western Wildway, a patchwork of protected habitats (regional corridors) pieced together by conservationists from Alaska to Mexico. The mine project area is also within secondary habitat for Canada lynx, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“If the public knew that the wildlife of the greater Yellowstone area might be harmed by mining so that Bayer can make Roundup, I’m sure they would not be happy,” said Kelly Fuller, the energy and mining campaign director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group that’s fighting the new mine.
Historically, the Yellowstone to Uinta corridor was a passage area and prime habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, Canada lynx, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, and other species, said John Carter, an ecologist who runs a local wildlife preserve. But grouse numbers have now plummeted, grizzly bears no longer pass through, wolverines were last sighted a few years ago, and the Yellowstone cutthroat trout is disappearing, he said. Deer and elk still graze in summer and winter, though their numbers, too, have diminished.
One of the main culprits leading to species decline in the corridor is habitat fragmentation and water, air and noise pollution from development, human activity, grazing, and mining, Carter said. When a phosphate mine was proposed next to his preserve, Carter formed the Yellowstone to Uintas Connection, an organization that works to safeguard the corridor from the impact of mines and other human disturbances. As the area further develops, Carter said, the animals have very few places to go.
“Each time government agencies do an environmental impact statement, they say, ‘Yes, we have these impacts, but the wildlife will go around them.’ But then you begin to look, and there’s another mine, there are roads, cattle grazing, pipelines, timber sales, ATVs, snow mobiles, and dirt bikes screeching down illegal trails,” Carter said. “They’re intruding further into the areas where wildlife might have security.”
National Park Service spokeswoman Linda Veress declined to comment because “the mines are in southeast Idaho, outside the park.” And the BLM said the Caldwell Canyon mine is outside the wildlife corridor. But Carter disagrees. He said the government has refused to properly map, analyze the habitat and species, and set standards for the corridor or offer it any protection.
Baseline wildlife field surveys in the area identified the presence of big game such as elk, mule deer, moose, and mountain lion. More than 100 bird species have also been observed there, including raptors such as bald eagles, golden eagles, and prairie falcons.
The Environmental Impact Statement concedes that Bayer’s Caldwell Canyon mine will negatively impact animals and birds, specifically during construction, mining operations, and reclamation. High levels of noise due to heavy equipment use and blasting would result in “potential disruptions in behavior that could ultimately impact reproductive success and survival.” It could also result in increased competition for resources. The mining would also lead to a loss of bird habitat, the statement acknowledges. And while some vegetation would eventually return, species composition would be different.
But Carter said the Environmental Impact Statement does not require any long-term monitoring, so the actual impacts on wildlife and plants won’t ultimately be known. “Everybody can pretend there’s not a problem,” Carter said.
One of the species that will be impacted, according to the analysis, is the greater sage grouse, which needs large swaths of sagebrush habitat to thrive and has faced severe population declines. The proposed Bayer mine would result in the loss or modification of nearly 1,000 acres of sage grouse habitat.
Another big concern is the way the noise created by the mining operations would disturb the grouse’s breeding grounds, called leks. Historically, the grouse have abandoned leks when noise levels get too high. BLM says noise could make one pending grouse lek identified near the mining site less viable or could lead to the birds’ relocation to an area with less disturbance. But environmentalists say the government underestimates the impact on other leks and hasn’t done a good enough job to study the issue. “We believe there will be disastrous effects on sage grouse because of this mine,” said the Western Watersheds Project’s Kelly Fuller.
Bayer said the company is working with Utah State University to conduct a habitat research project on 250 acres of its 2,200-acre Fox Hills Ranch just northeast of Soda Springs. The project entails, in part, improving the habitat by transplanting sagebrush removed from the Caldwell Canyon site, as well as planting additional seedlings raised in a greenhouse. Such off-site mitigation is no longer required by the BLM under the Trump administration (though pending lawsuits could change that). Environmentalists say because the land restoration is voluntary and Bayer may decide to stop it at any time, although BLM’s Cudnick said his agency may decide to make the cleanup mandatory.
After a decision on the new mine is issued this summer, and a subsequent 30-day appeals period, Bayer’s subsidiary will likely begin to extract phosphate ore and Bayer will continue to make more Roundup.
“It’s a tragedy that the BLM is allowing a private actor to use public land to create poison,” said Connor from the Center for Biological Diversity. “That’s not what public lands are for.”
Roundup photo CC-licensed by Mike Mozart.
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