Critical Encounters: A toxic river runs through it

By Thomas Pardee

by Sandra Allen

Faculty, Marketing Communication Department

“When you thread the worm on the fish hook,” my brother instructed, “grab it by its head and put the hook right there.” He pointed to a greenish spot midway along the earthworm’s body. “Then watch out for that black ooze that comes out of its end.”  When I squirmed, he said, “Nothing wrong with the ooze; it’s a little sticky, is all. Basically, it’s what’s left of the dirt the worm eats. It’s what it doesn’t use.”

We stood on the bank of East Mill Creek, one of the upstream tributaries of the Blackfoot River, which cuts through Caribou County in southeastern Idaho. Not far outside of the town of Soda Springs, population 2,600, is the place we called home. My 10-year-old brother was teaching me, his 13-year-old sister, to fish.

The first thing you should know is that using earthworms to catch cutthroat trout is considered blaspheme. But my brother used only worms and caught plenty of cutthroats in the clear, blue waters of the streams in Caribou County.

In addition to water resources, Caribou County has some of the richest deposits of phosphate ore in the United States.  Located on the Idaho/Wyoming border, the county’s economy has been fueled by mining for at least as long as I can remember-and probably a good bit longer.

Since 1984, the Boise-based agribusiness conglomerate J.R. Simplot has operated the Smoky Mountain phosphate mine 17 miles from Soda Springs. Phosphate ore from the open-pit mine is piped in slurry form over lands owned by the Shoshone-Bannock (Sho-Ban) Native American Tribes to Simplot’s plant about 70 miles away where it is made into fertilizer.

Foreseeing the eventual depletion of the mine’s resources, three years ago Simplot petitioned the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to expand its operations. In early September, both government agencies agreed to grant Simplot’s request.

Almost immediately, Sho-Ban Tribal Elders joined the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) and other environmental groups to block the mine’s growth. They argued that expansion  would increase contamination of the Blackfoot River and its tributaries.

Just miles away, irrigation water poisoned by selenium, a toxic chemical by-product of the phosphate mining, forced a rancher to kill four horses that had eaten contaminated grass.

But Idaho is a poor state, and jobs are often hard to come by. Phosphate mining and processing is big business in Idaho, employing 2,000 people with an annual payroll of $120 million.

The battle lines are drawn: humans versus nature, business versus the environment and jobs versus unemployment. However it ends, there will be repercussions. In some cases, it’s already too late.

The trout are gone now. In 1979, the Idaho Fish and Game Department reported that East Mill Creek had self-sustaining numbers of cutthroats. By 2002, a National Forest biologist concluded there were “virtually no fish in East Mill Creek.”

My brother is gone now, too, a victim of his own rampant blood cells and the manifestations of leukemia. Last year, the Idaho State Bureau of Statistics reported that cancer-related deaths in Caribou County are three times those in Idaho’s other 31 counties. I don’t believe in coincidence.

The aim of “Natural Tendencies” is to show the relationships between humans and nature, as well as to better understand human nature. If you would like to submit to Human “Natural Tendencies,” please contact Kevin Fuller at (312) 369-8505 or