Approval for Idaho Phosphate Mine Reversed

A judge ruled the U.S. didn't assess prairie bird impact.

A male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours outside Baggs, Wyo., on April 22, 2015.
A male sage grouse struts in the early morning hours outside Baggs, Wyo., on April 22, 2015.
Dan Cepeda/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP

A federal judge has yanked approval for a phosphate mining project in southeastern Idaho, saying federal land managers in the Trump administration didn't in part properly consider the mine's impact on sage grouse, a bird species that has seen an 80% decline in population since 1965.

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill's Friday decision came five months after he found fault with the way the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the Caldwell Canyon Mine in 2019.

The mine has been proposed by P4 Production LLC, a subsidiary of German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG. Three environmental groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians — sued.

In January, Winmill agreed with the conservation groups that the federal agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws on several counts when it approved the mine, including failing to consider the indirect effects of processing ore at a nearby plant and the cumulative impacts on sage grouse, whose population has dramatically declined over its habitat in 11 Western states, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

His Friday decision issued remedies for those violations: Vacating both the mine's approval and the environmental analysis of the project , as well as any other decision that relied on those documents.

"We believe the court's decision to vacate the BLM's approvals is excessive," Bayer AG said in a statement. The company is assessing its next steps, which could include an appeal.

"We believe the few specific deficiencies the court identified in the BLM's assessment can and should be fully addressed expeditiously," the statement said. Bayer said it plans to have the mine operational in the next few years.

An email sent to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The proposed venture would have included two new open mine pits to extract phosphate ore, according to court documents. It would have resulted in the disturbance of about 1,550 acres (627 hectares) of previously undeveloped land nearly 300 miles (483 kilometers) southeast of Boise.

The mine was projected to last for 40 years, with ore taken by truck or rail to a nearby processing plant.

There, the ore would be processed to produce glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the world. Bayer, which acquired the herbicide's original producer Monsanto in 2018, is facing thousands of claims from people who say Roundup exposure caused their cancer.

"This strip mine would've cut through the heart of crucial habitat for greater sage grouse and other species" just to produce an herbicide, Hannah Connor, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

"Now sage grouse have a fighting chance at continuing to dance their age-old dances in this place. And the government can't go on arbitrarily ignoring the environmental harms of phosphate mining," Connor said.

Bayer this year began transitioning glyphosate out of its U.S. residential lawn and garden products and using other ingredients as a way to reduce future litigation risks. Agriculture and professional products will not be changed, and the company said it stands behind the safety of its glyphosate products.


Thiessen reported from Anchorage, Alaska.

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