When a two-headed brown trout was found - the offspring of fish in a creek in southern Idaho - concerned scientists and activists had gained a compelling argument. Mining has polluted the water there with a toxic metal called selenium - and local wildlife is paying the price.
Photographs of similarly deformed trout were reviewed as part of a scientific study commissioned by J.R. Simplot - the manufacturing and processing company that makes Seakist Tuna, among other products. Simplot's mining operations have exposed nearby water sources with selenium, and the effects of the metal were easy to see: In addition to the two-headed specimen, other trout had facial, fin, and egg deformities.
Selenium, a naturally occurring element, is a dangerous byproduct of mining and coal burning. The metal causes significant damage to animal life; the deformity it causes to birds - missing eyes, twisted feet, protruding brains - is significantly worse than what has been done to the trout. But it's dangerous to humans as well; it can cause hair and fingernail loss, and numbness in fingers and toes.
Notably, at this time, selenium is found to be at higher levels than those that are permitted under regulatory guidelines. The company's report, however, concluded that it would be safe to let selenium remain in the creeks as-is.
Simplot sought a judgment from the Environmental Protection Agency that supports their conclusion. Upon receiving a draft report, the EPA found it "comprehensive."
Others didn't share this feeling.
When other scientists and environmental activists learned about the deformed fish, they called out Simplot - one of the nation's largest private companies - over the lack of integrity behind their research on this matter, and what the outcome could mean for future regulatory policy.
Critics in Tennessee may already be seeing the consequences, unintended or otherwise, of Simplot being lax on this issue.
Tennessee politicians have been angling to get selenium a free pass, reported Alternet. This is evident by the fact that two bills proposed in February (one in the Tenn. House and one in the Senate) sought to deregulate selenium altogether.
Joseph Skorupa, a biologist and selenium expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, found that notion outrageous. "There is absolutely no scientific reason for this," he said. "Who benefits from this?"
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D. Calif., who heads her chamber's Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to step in and analyze Simplot's supposed "conclusions."
Subsequently, the service produced a review of Simplot that denounced the company's study as "biased" and "highly questionable." Skorupa noted there was absolutely no analysis on selenium's impact on birds or reptiles. More disturbing, he remarked, was the fact that the researchers had drastically under measured the rate of serious deformities in baby fish, which were merely pictured in an appendix.
The fact that the coal industry and the Tennessee legislature are involved in trying to toss out all regulations for this pollutant is a telling sign that the problem extends far beyond a few Idaho creeks. But there are other implications, as well:
Selenium is a pollutant in 200 of the 1,294 locations designated by the U.S. governments as toxic Superfund sites (places contaminated with extremely hazardous substances).
Though the effects of selenium have harmed wildlife for decades, and the metal has been a point of controversy for nearly as long, federal agencies have not been able to come to an agreement as to what level it should be prohibited.
"The folks in charge feel that they don't have the luxury to" find methods to clean these types of polluted creeks and rivers, Skorupa added. "But they should understand that letting loose selenium is a momentous decision."
Photo: A rainbow trout fished out of Holmes Lake in Nebraska suffers from a deformity. Fish exposed to unregulated levels of selenium will exhibit similar mutations. Charrye Olberding/AP