On Thursday, the Daily Show did a segment about two-headed trout and the corporation Simplot. It got people talking, wondering why Comedy Central was the one to air this incredible piece. And while it does raise some very interesting questions that should be addressed, since we here are supposedly the reality-based community, let's separate fact from fiction.
So before you go posting this on Facebook and Twitter about how selenium caused the trout to grow two heads, only to then be made to look like a fool, it might be important to ask some questions first. Like, did the selenium in the water cause that trout to grow two heads? Actually, no, it didn't.
The tiny fry was the progeny of trout taken from two streams below the J.R. Simplot Co.’s Smoky Canyon Mine and raised in a hatchery in Wyoming. Its photo was one of several dozen in an appendix to a 2,070-page study Simplot did in an attempt to show that allowing higher levels of selenium could be allowed in creeks below the mine.So please, don't repeat a falsehood and then be made to look like an idiot for not knowing the facts. Leave the "not knowing facts" part to conservatives.
Mutated Yellowstone cutthroat fry, raised from hatchery fish that never swam in Idaho, also were pictured. One of those fry also grew two heads. But that fish had not been subjected to higher selenium.
The photos’ publication in The New York Times and elsewhere around the country brought attention to the study and the overall cleanup. On Thursday, The Daily Show ran a segment on the fish and Simplot’s mine on Comedy Central.
HOWEVER, the Daily Show has still highlighted some issues that need to be addressed. That, and the original video segment, below the fold.
The publicity has, in the public mind, linked Simplot’s phosphate mining with mutant fish. The irony is that the photo was included in the Simplot report to bolster the company’s point that all fish populations have some mutations, and that levels of selenium in two specific creeks can be set higher without harming the fish populations that have become good at surviving in those conditions.Technically, they're correct. All fish populations will have some amount of mutations. The question is if those exposed to the selenium in the water coming from Simplot's factories will have significantly higher levels of mutations. And when I say "significant", I mean it in a statistical sense.
The two-headed fish in the non-Idaho control group underscored that deformities happen in all populations. It’s the rate of deformity that matters, and Simplot argued that the rates of deformity in the fish in its creeks are not dramatically different.
Now, I haven't read through Simplot's entire 2,000-page report, nor do I care to. For the sake of argument, I'm going to assume for now that their study was at least done correctly and accurately. And yes, some have said their study was flawed.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researcher earlier this year found the Simplot study wanting, saying it minimized the rate of deformities in baby fish.But let's assume for now that they did the proper test (probably a z-test), and found the difference in the two populations was not statistically significant. Fine. That shouldn't be what we're focused on, anyway.
Simplot's argument is that because there's no statistical difference right now, they should be allowed to increase the amount of selenium they're allowed to pollute into the water.
This is where we should be screaming, "Whoa!!!" It's like saying that after sticking a knife 1 millimeter into your chest, you're still alive, so let's stick the knife in deeper and see what happens to you then. Only the "you" in this case is the water supply for Idaho. See how that can get problematic? The problem is that science doesn't know the EXACT levels of selenium that suddenly make it go from safe to unsafe.
There’s broad consensus that high levels of selenium are bad, especially for aquatic life. But the exact level remains debated among scientists and federal agencies.But if we simply allow them to increase levels of selenium repeatedly, obviously at some point we WILL hit the tipping point. And by then it will be too late. And that's the argument to make. If you allow them to take this step, how are you ever going to know they've crossed the threshold to an unsafe level of selenium in the water, until they do a study maybe two years after humans start dying from being poisoned by it?
So kudos to the Daily Show for highlighting this story. It needs to be told. The influence of Simplot with all those Republican officials in Idaho is disconcerting. But when you go talk about it, make sure you're armed with the facts, and know how to properly explain this to other people. It's tempting to yell about how Simplot's selenium caused two-headed fish, but it'd also be, as far as we can tell for now, not true.
Also, this is by no means a done deal for Simplot either.
Earlier this year, Simplot asked the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to approve higher limits on selenium in Sage and Crow creeks below the mine. Simplot said its study showed that selenium levels can exceed the current federal standard of 5 parts per billion and still protect fish populations that have been stable in the creeks for decades.This is actually how government is supposed to work. The state agencies responsible have to monitor and approve any recommended changes first, and the legislature must also agree to it. And let's not forget the money and jobs issue at hand too.
DEQ water quality chief Barry Burnell said the agency still has a long way to go before determining whether to approve the change. DEQ has more questions for Simplot and the Environmental Protection Agency before it makes any recommendation. Then the Idaho Board of Environmental Quality must approve the change; the Idaho Legislature must also sign off.
Even if DEQ does raise the selenium limits, Hoyt said, he’s not sure it will help Simplot much. The group’s own sampling has found trout in the creek with selenium levels in their flesh that well exceed Simplot’s proposed higher limits.
If the limit is raised, Simplot would have an easier target that could save it millions of dollars in cleanup costs. But Simplot would be better served, Hoyt said, by helping speed the cleanup and getting the federal government to pay its share.
Eventually, total cleanup costs could reach $500 million to $750 million, Hoyt said. And an ambitious cleanup could mean Idaho jobs, like those dedicated to cleaning up decades of nuclear waste at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory.