UPDATED, 8:34 a.m. Wednesday, to reflect that the two-headed trout was the progeny of trout collected downstream from the J.R. Simplot Co.'s Smoky Canyon Mine.
Call it life imitating animation. The J.R. Simplot Co.’s infamous two-headed trout channels “Blinky,” the imaginary three-eyed fish that lived near the nuclear power plant on “The Simpsons.”
Inevitably, the real two-headed trout captured the attention of a not-exactly-real news program, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” which ran a segment on the mutated fingerling last week.
Sure, if you can’t dream up a one-liner about a two-headed fish, you’re not trying hard enough. But the underlying issue is serious stuff: water quality in Idaho’s mining country, and the role a powerful Idaho industrial leader should take in protecting the environment.
Simplot is petitioning the state for relaxed water quality standards below its Smoky Canyon Mine, an open-pit operation near the Wyoming border that yields more than 2 million tons of phosphate ore each year. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality will have to decide whether to allow higher levels of selenium in creeks below the plant.
This is where the two-headed trout swims into the picture. It is known that selenium — which, in higher concentrations, can cause human neurological disorders — can also trigger wildlife deformities. Simplot released a photo of a mutated trout, the progeny of two trout collected downstream from the mine, but the company argues that the same deformities occur in other fish populations, and at similar rates.
A red herring?
That’s for the DEQ to decide.
And to view skeptically.
Recent history should give DEQ pause. While selenium is a mineral that is found in nature, the release of this mineral can cause serious environmental effects. Selenium has been linked to two separate livestock kills. Now, less than a decade into a Superfund cleanup in the area, Simplot wants to operate under a new set of rules.
The burden of proof falls squarely on the company.
And the burden of protecting Idahoans — and their water supply — falls to DEQ.
The agency does not get the last word. Ultimately, any changes in selenium standards would need to be approved by the Legislature. But the Legislature’s record on environmental issues is hardly reassuring. It’s incumbent upon the DEQ to hold Simplot to exacting standards — and to put science ahead of politics.
All joking aside, Simplot’s two-headed trout isn’t just comic fodder. It’s a powerful, compelling symbol that focuses public attention on a little-known environmental issue, in a remote corner of the state. The trout also puts DEQ in the spotlight.
The agency has an opportunity, and an obligation, to stand tall on Idahoans’ behalf.