Phosphate Mining

Monsanto's public affairs director Trent Clark

Gold and silver may be the state's glamorous commodities, but the largest mineral industry in Idaho is not gold or silver. It's phosphate.

Phosphate ore is the result of a complicated sedimentary rock formation created at the bottom of the shallow sea that once covered parts of Idaho more than 260 million years ago.

"The one thing about mining," says Monsanto's public affairs director Trent Clark, "is you can’t just sort of say, hmm, here’s a great place to mine. I think I’ll mine here. The reason is you have to mine where nature has put the ore."

Near Soda Springs, in southeastern Idaho, Monsanto processes phosphate into elemental phosphorous. Phosphorous is used in everything from lawn fertilizers and Roundup to toothpaste and soda pop.

A pile of mined phosphateIdaho's phosphate mining district is the consistent, solid performer in the state, employing 2,000 workers at several companies, including Monsanto and the J.R. Simplot Company.

Since the 1970's, mining companies have had to reclaim the land. And the scars left from phosphate mining cry out for reclamation.

"I will be the first to admit that mining is ugly," says mine reclamation specialist Michael Vice. "It is. If we’re going to be a civilized world though, we have to mine. If we’re going to mine, can we be responsible stewards of the land?"

Monsanto has won numerous state and national awards for its commitment to reclamation. The company routinely goes beyond the federal requirements for reclamation, planting trees and using twice the recommended number of grass seed mixes. The company has given Michael Vice free reign to make mountains out of mine holes.

"It is required by the regulations, and, quite honestly, it's the right thing to do. Previously mined area that has been returned to its original state, or reclaimed, by the mining companyWhy leave land in a poor condition from mining?" asks Vice rhetorically. "It should be put back to better or equal to what it was before mining."

To make his point, Vice points to a piece of land that looks untouched. "This was reclaimed about 10 years ago. Imagine what it’s going to look like in another ten years, and then ten years after that."

But the phosphate industry has a problem: high levels of selenium. This mineral is usually found in the shale beneath the phosphate deposits. For decades, phosphate companies spread that selenium over the landscape.

The deaths of horses and sheep in 1997, from ingesting selenium-laden plants, was a wake-up call for the industry.

A phosphate mine"Selenium is a challenge," says Trent Clark. "When you talk about 20 years ago, were we actually managing for selenium? The answer is no, because we couldn’t even measure it at that time."

Phosphate companies have since spent millions, in conjunction with state and federal agencies, revising their management and reclamation practices.

"Science is what advises us," says Clark, "and as the science progresses, we’re able to do a better and better job. And we want to always be in that continual improvement process where, every year that goes by, we learn something new. And each year we do even a better job."

Reclamation specialist Michael Vice agrees. "I believe that we are making a difference. Seeing the animals on the land. Seeing them use the wildlife habitat, the brush piles and the rock piles that we build. They're the ones that decide whether or not we've made a difference.

It's all about them, really."

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