The Wound That Won’t Heal: Idaho’s Phosphate Problem
This is the first story in a three-part series about phosphate mining in southeast Idaho and its effects on the Shoshone-Bannock tribes. In this installment, Indian Country Today Media Network takes a historic look at the defunct FMC plant on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeast Idaho. In coming stories, we’ll look at the heavily polluted 1,500-acre plant site – and explore paths for the future.
An elemental phosphorus plant owned by the FMC Corp., on the Shoshone-Bannock homelands in Idaho, has been abandoned for more than a decade. But its legacy of pollution remains – and it’s jeopardizing economic progress, public and environmental health on the reservation and in surrounding communities.
The main ingredient, phosphate ore, was brought in by rail from mines bored into the surrounding hills, where ancient shallow seas left it in rich concentrations. Seventeen such mines in the region – some of them still operating – are now Superfund sites, because of selenium contamination that’s poisoning plants and wildlife.
At the height of its operation between 1949 and 2001, the FMC plant near Pocatello, Idaho produced 250 million pounds of elemental phosphorus a year from two million tons of phosphate ore, silica, and coke, a fuel related to coal. While elemental phosphorous is useful for flammable materials and fertilizers, FMC’s product was most often shipped to be converted to phosphoric acid, used in a variety of consumer products including foods, plastics, glass products, soda pop, fabrics, film and cleaning solutions.
Since the plant’s closure in 2001, the old kiln, furnaces and associated structures have been torn down. But its poisoned, 1,500-acre site remains. The FMC site and the neighboring – and still-operating – J.R. Simplot phosphoric acid facility make up the Eastern Michaud Flats Superfund Site, where decades of highly politicized wrangling between the industries, the Environmental Protection Agency, tribal environmental regulators, and the state of Idaho have struggled to contain dangerous waste in the air, groundwater, soil and the nearby Portneuf River.
From Potatoes to Pollution
John Richard “Jack” Simplot began mining phosphate in southeast Idaho in 1946. According to a 1993 retrospective in the Fort Hall-based Sho-Ban News, Simplot was growing, packing and shipping potatoes through the 1930s, but by the early 1940s he could see that there wasn't enough chemical fertilizer in the western states – especially given the pressure to produce more food during World War II.
Among his other early enterprises to remedy the situation, Simplot negotiated a lease in the mid-1940s with the BIA and USGS for a mine on the Fort Hall reservation. He named the property the Gay Mine, after his daughter. Initially, phosphate ore from the Gay Mine was hauled by truck 28 miles to Simplot’s fledgling plant west of Pocatello. There, high-grade ore was turned into fertilizer that allowed Idaho farmers to get unheard-of yields from their potato and other crops; low-grade ores were shipped elsewhere.
Shortly afterward, a company named Westvaco began construction on an elemental phosphorus plant on the reservation. Before it was even built, the California-based Food Machinery Company, now called FMC, bought it. FMC was able to use lower-grade shale to make its elemental phosphorus.
Documented environmental trouble first arose in 1976, when a well at the now-closed Pilot House Restaurant revealed arsenic contamination and had to be shut down. By the 1980s, the EPA was looking at the FMC and Simplot properties as a potential combined Superfund site, due to unlined waste ponds containing elevated levels of arsenic, phosphorus, cadmium, chloride, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, potassium, selenium, silica, vanadium – the phosphate ore came as a package deal with every other element in the periodic table, as an FMC scientist says now – and trace amounts of organic solvents. Groundwater monitoring as early as the mid-1970s revealed that multiple constituents had begun leaking off-site, into the ground water.
On the bright side, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes were among the first in the country to enact a percentage royalty rate tied to the value of the ore, tax the mining operations, and force the mining companies to hire Indians according to TERO regulations. Some of the battles have been hard-won, however. Courtroom fights to enforce TERO at the FMC plant spanned the 1990s, and were ultimately successful. Tribal efforts to regulate FMC’s pollution began then, and continue today.
Bringing the Hammer
Farshid Farsi works in Las Vegas now, as a co-coordinator for the Tribal Air Monitoring Support Center operated jointly by the Northern Arizona University and the EPA. But from early 1992 until late 2003, he worked in the Shoshone-Bannock tribal air quality program, where FMC commanded nearly all of his focus.
When he first stepped into his role as an air quality officer, it was just months after the EPA had designated 261 square miles around the FMC site as an air quality non-attainment area for a class of particulate matter called pm10, which includes coarse particles from crushing or grinding operations, and dust stirred up by vehicles.
At that time the Shoshone-Bannock tribes had no federally enforceable air quality regulations, and relied upon the EPA to oversee air quality. The EPA tasked the state of Idaho with a regional improvement plan, which focusing on air quality issues on state lands. The Simplot facility took the step of installing a slurry pipeline from the mine to the plant, so that their ore could be mixed with water to keep the dust down. That helped the state’s efforts significantly. FMC was a different story. Air quality monitors were installed nearly a mile away from the facility on the state side – but not downwind, where the reservation is. Air tests were coming up clean enough to meet national air quality standards as a deadline approached in late 1996. But then, something changed: In the fourth quarter of that year, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes secured funding from the EPA to install air quality monitors of their own.
“Within that three months, there were 20 excesses of pm10,” Farsi recalls. “Three-plus meant non-attainment. Non-attainment can slow down economic growth. In non-attainment areas, businesses must show that they will reduce pollutant levels and will not make the air quality worse. That was one of the main reasons the state was trying to get that non-attainment status lifted.”
Soon, the EPA divided the non-attainment area into two, with the reservation on the downwind side, and Pocatello on the other. That way, the state could claim Clean Air Act attainment in the region that included Pocatello. It also helped pave the way for more tribal control over the pollution, especially because, within a couple of years, the EPA came out with the Clean Air Act’s Tribal Authority Rule. With Farsi and his co-workers at the helm, the tribe took up the challenge.
Those years marked the start of a thorny trail for FMC, which led to its shutdown in 2001. Mileposts along the way included an $85,000 EPA penalty for air quality violations in the late 1990s, and $170 million in fines by the federal Department of Justice for hazardous waste violations. The DOJ order included what was at that time the largest civil penalty ever obtained under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Then, in 1999, FMC and the EPA signed a consent decree that mandated the construction of an $110 million facility to treat the plant’s waste by extracting and treating the water from it, then putting the solids through incineration; the ashes would be encapsulated in concrete and buried. Called the LDR facility, the creation was erected in 2001, but razed shortly afterwards, when the EPA decided to leave the waste in place.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, ever-stronger tribal regulators continued to doggedly monitor air quality, publicly putting their data alongside FMC’s, which was massaged to look rosier, Farsi says. Tribal government and business officials asserted their growing power by charging FMC fees for air emissions as well as for solid waste stored on the reservation.
FMC’s ‘No-good Operation’
Farsi remembers feeling like FMC was a powerful company – too powerful to influence with regulation alone. “I didn’t think too many agencies had enough power to bring these guys to their knees to abide by anybody’s rules,” he said, “specifically, tribal rules. Some tribal members felt that the economic benefits outweighed the environmental costs. It was really hard to get to their hearts and minds and let them know that their health and the health of their future generations was at stake.”
So Farsi, by that time the tribal Air Quality Program manager, was taking his staff to public meetings to educate the community. “Gradually we started working with the youth,” he remembers. “We started working with the council. We started working with attorneys. We started bringing in the facts to the community members. Pretty soon, within two or three years, the community was behind us. They were pointing their fingers at the smokestack and saying, ‘that is FMC’s no-good operation.’”
The idea never was to shut FMC down, Farsi says now, “because we understood that they were a huge help to the economy of that area. All we were asking was for them to work with us, and operate clean.”
Off the reservation, environmental activists weren’t so diplomatic. A handful of vocal residents in Pocatello and surrounding towns were complaining loudly about FMC’s pollution. Among the more dramatic flashpoints were the documented stories of wild birds landing in FMC’s uncovered waste ponds, and then catching fire as they tried to fly away. The naysayers also cried foul on a thick, smelly, yellow haze of pollution from FMC and Simplot that often hugged the Portneuf Valley, including Pocatello. And they blasted regulators for millions of gallons each day of myriad toxic substances that leaked or were poured, at that time largely unregulated by the state or the EPA, into the groundwater and the Portneuf River.
Ultimately, the market outweighed the growing costs of environmental regulation as well as the facility’s publicity problems. Chinese phosphorous was coming into the country cheaper than what FMC could produce. A power brownout in the mid-1990s forced FMC to curtail its power needs by dropping from four furnaces to two – and costs skyrocketed for the electricity it still used. When FMC owners finally shuttered the plant in late 2001, they cited the high price of electricity as the main cause.
Even the environmental fines weren’t daunting, compared to what turned out – in hindsight – to be a temporary bubble in electrical costs caused by Enron’s ill-fated rise. “At that point in 2001, FMC had a good understanding of what its environmental projects were. Those costs were behind us,” recalls Rob Hartman, a former FMC employee who now consults with the company as a hydrogeologist with MWH Americas, Inc. “But we were paying hundreds of times per megawatt what we were originally paying. Forty percent of our operational costs were for power.”
Simplot continues to operate just off the reservation, along with a small Monsanto elemental phosphorous plant about 50 miles southeast of Pocatello; the state and EPA continue to grapple with their various waste products. But at FMC, the focus shifted to cleanup nearly 13 years ago.
Still, for Farsi, the years he spent bird-dogging the then-operating facility rank as the best of his professional career. “My co-worker, I always tell him truly those were the best years of my professional life,” he says. “It would be zero degrees at FMC in February, and we’d spend hours breathing smoke to make inspections which eventually were used in the Federal Implementation Plan that EPA Region 10 generated. Those were all good days. They truly were the best years of my life. The energy was high; the excitement was there. We were becoming a symbol of consistency and perseverance, to show that when you’ve got the right people involved, you can conquer.”