Two-Headed Trout: Water Pollution Rearing Its Ugly Heads

As some members of Congress push their dirty water agenda, we are continually reminded of the importance of clean water safeguards.

This week, news broke with compelling photos of the devastating effects of selenium in waterways.  Mutated brown trout, sporting two heads similar to the likes of blinky a la The Simpsons, were found near polluted creeks in southern Idaho.  The area of concern has been severely impacted by phosphate mines (more than 30 in operation) with toxic selenium contamination killing horses, livestock, and wildlife while also devastating stream cutthroat trout habitat. 

Scientists have consistently found selenium pollution affects fish first, acting as a canary in the coal mine with regards to water pollution.  This is not merely a concern for fish but a concern for public health as well. Selenium has been linked to increased cancer risk, hair loss, poorly formed nails, problems walking, reduced reflexes and circulation problems in humans.   

Selenium, a metal, which in trace amounts supports good health in humans as a micronutrient can quickly become a toxic by-product during mining operations.  Although this week’s two-headed trout were a result of phosphate mining, agriculture and coal burning are also sources of selenium contamination. Mountaintop removal has been a particularly contested source of selenium pollution. This devastating mining practice, which has buried more than 1,000 miles of small streams, is especially prevalent in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.  Researchers at Wake Forest recently found selenium toxicity in 73 out of 78 streams in West Virginia.

Selenium is also a toxic component of coal ash, which has numerous ecological and health concerns.  Specifically, coal ash toxins seep into surface and ground water supplies and can bioaccumulate in fish.  In fact, a 2007 assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency found at least 23 states with poisoned surface and ground water supplies from improper disposal of coal ash.

News of this odd nature reminds us of the continued need for clean water regulations.  Two-headed trout are our canary in the coal mine for clean water.    Clean water, free of mining by-product pollutants, is of critical importance for human, fish and ecological health.