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U.S. v. FMC Corp. (D. Idaho)
Photograph taken from Chinese Peak Road just east of Pocatello, Idaho. Courtesy of BLM.

Hazardous Waste at Pocatello Idaho Facility

Elemental phosphorous is mined from phosphate ore and is used in detergents, beverages, foods, synthetic lubricants, and pesticides. It also bursts into flame upon contact with air. In 1990, FMC’s Pocatello Idaho facility, located on 1,400 acres of privately owned land within the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Indian reservation, was the world's largest producer of elemental phosphorus. Operating since 1949, FMC processed 1.4 million tons of shale ore per year, producing about 250 million pounds of elemental phosphorus a year, and over 26,455 pounds per year of ignitable and reactive hazardous waste.

Historically, FMC managed its hazardous wastes in large unlined ponds. Sediments in these ponds burn vigorously and persistently when exposed to the air, and FMC had a history of pond fires over the years. These pond wastes were also hazardous because, when mixed with water, they generated highly toxic phosphine and hydrogen cyanide gases. Phosphine, used as a nerve gas in World War I, was suspected of having caused the sporadic deaths of migratory birds in the area. In addition, groundwater sampling showed elevated levels of cadmium, arsenic, manganese, and cobalt extending northeast from the FMC facility, and toward the Pontneuf River and American Falls Reservoir, which are used for irrigation, fishing, and recreation. Public and private wells within 3 miles of the facility provided drinking water to an estimated 55,000 people and were also used to irrigate over 2,100 acres of forage crops.

RCRA Enforcement Action

In 1990, FMC was required by law to begin to upgrade or close its hazardous waste storage ponds, but failed to do so. EPA inspections in 1993 led to an enforcement action by the Department of Justice pursuant to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the nation’s primary law regulating hazardous wastes, which FMC elected to resolve through negotiations rather than litigation, pursuant to the 1991 Civil Justice Reform Executive Order, in which the government encourages industry to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve violations of environmental laws prior to litigation. Due to the fact that the FMC facility is located on the Shoshone-Bannock Indian reservation, the Tribe was invited to participate in all negotiations relating to injunctive relief and Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs).

Outcome: In a Consent Decree entered in 1998, FMC agreed to:

  • close its illegal ponds;

  • construct a treatment system to remove the hazardous characteristics of its waste;

  • observe all RCRA requirements for handling its wastes prior to treatment

  • include measures to prevent waste ignition, stringent phosphine emissions monitoring, and strategies to protect wildlife, particularly migratory birds which are attracted to the ponds. FMC’s total capital cost was approximately $93 million;

  • pay a cash penalty of $11,864,800 -- then the largest civil penalty settlement ever obtained under RCRA;

  • perform fourteen SEPs, thirteen of which were expected to significantly improve air quality in the Pocatello region by reducing particulate air emissions by 67%, a reduction of approximately 436 tons per year;

  • conduct a $1.65 million public health assessment and education program to investigate the effects of contaminants generated by FMC on human health and the environment, particularly within nearby tribal lands. These projects included a baseline health assessment of residents, a literature review to identify exposure pathways and toxicological effects of exposure, field investigations and data collection, and an education component to inform Tribal members about the effects of existing contamination on Tribal cultural customs that involve the use or consumption of native biota.

As a final component of the settlement, FMC agreed to undertake an environmental management systems audit to improve the implementation of the injunctive relief and SEPs under the Consent Decree, and to ensure better environmental compliance in the future.


Last Updated: November 2010