Three conservation organizations have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s 2019 approval of a Caribou County phosphate mine planned to supply ore for Bayer AG’s Soda Springs operations.
Attorneys with Boise-based Advocates for the West — representing Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians — argue the company’s Caldwell Canyon Mine would develop nearly 1,600 acres of important sage grouse habitat.
In addition to the wildlife concerns, the organizations allege in their lawsuit, which was filed on April 27 and will be handled by U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale, that regulators failed to adequately evaluate the potential for the mine to contaminate the environment with toxic levels of selenium.
Phosphate from the open-pit mine will be made into glyphosate — the active ingredient in RoundUp herbicide — at the Soda Springs plant. The mine would be operated by the Bayer subsidiary P4 Production LLC, and would yield an estimated 40-year supply of ore.
In a statement issued in response to the lawsuit, Bayer officials said the application received overwhelming support from the community during the permitting process.
“Nearly 100% of the public comments submitted to the Bureau of Land Management during the permitting process were positive and supportive,” Bayer officials said in the press release. “Bayer has worked collaboratively and transparently with the Soda Springs community, conservation groups and other key stakeholders throughout the permitting process to ensure the sustainability of our new mine.”
Bayer officials boast they’ve committed to building the most environmentally advanced and sustainable phosphate mine in the world.
The lawsuit, by contrast, claims the BLM made only a cursory analysis of the mine proposal, which lacks adequate environmental safeguards, thereby threatening “public lands, wildlife, downstream waters, tribal lands and nearby communities for generations to come.”
The plaintiffs note in their suit that selenium contamination from historic phosphate mining in the area has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of livestock, as well as deformities and adverse effects in birds and wildlife.
The lawsuit alleges the federal agency failed to consider the cumulative effects of phosphate mining and related selenium contamination on the environment. According to the suit, the BLM’s 2019 final environmental impact statement didn’t thoroughly evaluate the potential for selenium dust to contaminate the Blackfoot River, which already exceeds state water-quality standards for the element.
The BLM also neglected to vet the mine’s impact on radioactive waste and groundwater pollution, according to the lawsuit. The litigants further argue the agency didn’t properly consider seasonal variations to water flow in evaluating groundwater impacts.
The lawsuit raises concerns about potential harm to a threatened species, Canada lynx, and a species proposed for listing, North American wolverine.
Furthermore, the suit claims the BLM didn’t adequately evaluate impacts on sage grouse. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2010 that a listing for the greater sage grouse was “warranted but precluded” by higher priority species.
Finally, the suit alleges the BLM reviewed only a narrow set of alternatives and excluded options suggested in public comments.
The final environmental impact statement suggests mining could begin in 2022. Preparatory work is already underway at the site.
Sarah Stellberg, an attorney on the case with Advocates for the West, said the mine would impair about 1,000 acres of sage grouse habitat. She acknowledged there are no official sage grouse leks — areas where male sage grouse engage in courtship rituals — in the mining area. However, she said male birds have been observed performing their courtship rituals within the area during the past few years, and there simply haven’t been enough years of data to support lek designations.
“The population of sage grouse that use this area is not doing well. ... There are relatively few leks left in this population,” Stellberg said. “Impacting one of the few remaining leks can have a disproportionate impact on their population.”
Stellberg said the plaintiffs filed their suit as soon as it was ready, but they’re hopeful, nonetheless, that the Biden Administration will look at the facts differently than the Trump Administration, which was in power when the mine was approved.
BLM officials declined to comment for this story.
Bayer officials said in their press release that the BLM’s evaluations were comprehensive.
The BLM’s final environmental impact statement contained language pertaining to many of the concerns listed in the lawsuit. For example, the document described a fugitive dust control plan that would minimize the generation of dust — though not specifically focused on selenium — through the use of vegetated cover materials and water spray on roads. Modeling suggests selenium concentrations from dust emissions would not exceed standards, according to the BLM analysis.