Sometimes Two Heads Aren’t Better Than One

Courtesy Simplot

There’s a scene in Erin Brockovich in which the title character meets with executives whose company, Brockovich believes, has contaminated her community’s water supply. The executives deny any wrongdoing, but when Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts) tells one of the company’s attorneys that the water she has provided at their meeting comes from the disputed wells, the corporate rep refuses to drink it.

I thought about this scene after reading a story in The New York Times (“Mutated Trout Raise New Concerns Near Mine Sites,”) about J.R. Simplot, a mining company accused of endangering wildlife in southern Idaho by dumping selenium into creeks at levels that exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

The article looks into the debate between Simplot, which argues that its operations are not hazardous, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which questions the validity of Simplot’s claims. But by the company’s own admission, the water into which Simplot poured its mining by-products now contain fish with two heads and other deformities. Would managers at J.R. Simplot be willing to consume these fish themselves? Would they allow their children to swim in the creeks in question?

It would be one thing if Simplot denied that they damaged anything at all. What’s striking, though, is that its own research provided frightening examples of harm to marine life, the kind you’d see in a 1950s science-fiction movie (although the company did put that information in an appendix to the study it commissioned). That should have been evidence enough for Simplot to seriously reconsider its business practices. It makes more sense—financially and ethically—for the company to find safer ways to mine minerals.

One of the mantras of time management is, “If you don’t manage your time, someone else will.” By the same token, businesses that don’t take the ethical principle Do No Harm seriously will find themselves, like J.R. Simplot, subject to both government intervention and lots of bad press. Nature has spoken, and Simplot would be smart to heed its call now.

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