Are Two-Headed Fish Linked to Waterway Dead Zones?
The recent study commissioned by the JR Simplot Company that illustrated selenium levels in local waterways could be raised without risking trout deformities has provoked public outcry regarding the company’s phosphate mining operation. But there is a larger, more important issue to contend with: How the use of chemical fertilizers coming from these mines are destroying our waterways and our environment.
The JR Simplot Company is a leading supplier of chemical fertilizers, which produce the runoff of phosphates and nitrogen that are causing dead zones around the planet. Where does the chemical fertilizer phosphate come from? Simplot’s mining operations.
Simplot’s study has provoked public concern that mining and similar operations will lead to massive deformities in waste streams, leading to huge cleanup programs, likely involving taxpayer expense. The concern is over creeks in Southern Idaho that have become polluted with selenium by Simplot’s mining operations. Has it produced any two-headed fish? According to the study, the selenium levels in the creeks are not yet at levels that are producing these sorts of mutations. Yet.
The goal of the study was to convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to permit Simplot to continue releasing more selenium into these Idaho creeks.
The bigger issue relates to one of the key uses of the mining of phosphate – which is causing the selenium release into the Idaho streams. Phosphate – or phosphorus – is a significant ingredient of chemical fertilizers, along with nitrogen and other chemicals. Yes, this is the same stuff that is polluting waterways near agricultural areas due to the chemical runoffs from farms that use chemical fertilizers.
These nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers are suffocating various waterways around the country, and causing “dead zones” that include the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and 300 square miles off the coast of Oregon. Expensive dead zone cleanups have included the Hudson River and the San Francisco Bay, but these and other dead zone regions around the world have been connected to the runoff of phosphates and nitrogens from chemical fertilizers.
A dead zone is an area of water where these chemicals spawn the growth of zooplankton, which exhausts the water of oxygen and suffocates the fish and other sealife in that region.
The real story here is not the dastardly evil corporations and their seeming desire to trick us into allowing them mine deeper and deeper and dump these chemicals into our creeks. The real problem is what we choosing to eat. We are polluting our environment with our wallets here, by choosing to buy foods that are farmed conventionally, when just about all the foods we eat can be purchased as organic.
With every shopping trip we are subsidizing the strategies of corporations to mine and produce these fertilizers.
Organically-farmed foods utilize compost, biowaste (such as plant cuttings) and other natural fertilizers that do not cause the runoff of phosphate and nitrogen into local waterways. These natural fertilizers – which also happen to produce healthier, more disease-resistant plants that research has shown are more productive than their conventionally-grown peers – are thoroughly digested into the soil. There they create healthy, sustainable soil that does not run-off, cause soil-erosion and produce dead zones.
Several studies have shown that soil erosion is devastating farmland throughout the Midwest region, again due to the repeated use of chemical fertilizers.
So while the two-headed fish may have captured our attention, the real story here is why we need to mine for phosphates in the first place. Organic compost contains plenty of phosphate. All a farmer has to do is spread plant- or manure-based fertilizers and/or plant cover crops between crops and around the fields, and cut those and turn them over with the soil to yield a healthier soil and a healthier planet.
We can encourage more farmers to do more of this simply with our wallets. By purchasing organic foods, we are increasing the demand, which will result in more farmers converting acres to organic production. This has already proven to work. Over the last two decades, as more consumers have become educated on the nutritional and health reasons to eat organic foods, acres farmed organically have grown significantly.
However, acres under organic production through 2008 still only account for 0.6% of all farmland in the U.S. And it is this very reason why organic foods tend to be a little more expensive than conventional foods: Because not enough of us are buying them. Once more of us decide that we don’t want to suffocate our waterways on our way towards producing two-headed fish, we will solve several problems at once by buying organic foods. Then these very same “evil” corporations will redirect their efforts towards figuring out how to more efficiently produce organic fertilizers and crops that do not pollute our environment.
By Case Adams