Kesterson Whistleblower Felix Smith comments on my "Two-Faced Fish in a Barrel" story

Editor's Note: Nearly 30 years ago Felix Smith, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), leaked information to then Fresno Bee reporter Deborah Blum that selenium-tainted farm drainage water from the Westlands Water District was causing embryo deformities in migratory birds nesting or feeding at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge evaporation ponds in western Merced County.  FWS biologists were initially barred from publicly speaking about the bird deformities by Reagan Administration Interior Secretary James Watt.  Smith and another FWS biologist, Harry Ohlendorf, had discovered the deformed birds in the Spring of 1983 when they opened eggs in nests at the so-called wildlife "refuge."   The Fish and Wildlife Service purportedly was preparing a press release on the issue but after months, Smith got angry and impatient at the stall tactics and let Deborah  Blum (who later won a Pulitzer Prize) know what was going on. Within 18 months, following continuing national publicity on the issue, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered Kesterson cleaned up or closed. On March 15, 1985, Watt's successor as Interior Secretary, Donald Hodel, ordered Kesterson closed.  Smith, who won numerous wildlife protection awards, retired in 1990 after 34 years of service in the agency.  He turned 80 this month and has kept busy on water issues, acting as a watchdog for the state water board and reminding people the Fish and Wildlife Service has a duty to protect the public's interest in public trust resources.  He is one of my environmental heroes. After reading my recent post entitled "Two-faced Fish in a Barrel" about selenium pollution of trout creeks near a J.R. Simplot phosphate mine in Southeast Idaho  Smith submitted the following comment.

Hi Lloyd:

After reading your Blog, not much has really changed in FWS.  When I read it, in my head was [FWS Pacific Regional Director] Joe Blum ranting the same crap.   The FWS hates it when such stuff gets out in the public.  Joe used to say "keep that stuff out of the newspapers, it will give us a bad name."  I would say it's the public attention that will help correct the problem. And that no doubt was the case with selenium/deformed birds in the San Joaquin Valley [of California].  The Bureau / with [Bureau of Reclamation regional Director]
 David Houston and Joe Blum of FWS were trying to keep the selenium issue hidden. When it was publicized that the Bureau of Reclamation [which built the federal water delivery system for Westlands] was going to hold a closed workshop on selenium, that was when the selenium deformities and conditions of the agricultural drainage really made headlines.  [Blum died a few years ago of a heart attack.] 

I was told by then top FWS management that if the selenium/deformed bird issues would have occurred in another state like Nevada, Idaho or Montana first, the messengers' heads would have been rolled.  It would have been easier to control such information and the situations in those states.  In addition the FWS would have made an example out of the FWS biologists involved, held up for ridicule and discredited. 

With the openness of California and the great public acceptance of the FWS findings and the credibility of the biologists involved, FWS top management had their hands tied.  The facts that Congressman George Miller [a San Francisco Bay area member of Congress] was apprised of the information early on about the seriousness of the situation also helped a lot.

After Joe Blum chewed my ass out for even talking to people about what FWS biologists had found, we had to get others to support us and our findings.  That was when Drs. Ivan Barnes and Theresa Presser [U.S. Geological Survey scientists] got on board with the help of a USGS water guy "Gil Bertoldi."  Within 24 hours, the team of Barnes and Presser  told us they were 99 9 percent sure the problem was selenium in the water and food chain.  In a telephone conversation with Ivan's Washington area headquarters, Ivan said that the young guys at FWS did it right and got it right, the USGS findings supported the FWS findings.  The public workshop held at UC Berkeley that December of 1983 (a week before the Bureau workshop) then put educating the public into the forefront with photos and scientific findings in the newspapers and on dinner time TV. The cat was out of the bag.  From that time on there was no going back.

Whenever I spoke in public about our findings, I would say "Although I am with the FWS and on the Selenium / agricultural waste water project, my comments are my own and do not necessarily represent the FWS official position."  This would drive Joe Blum nuts.  Free speech rights can not be abridged.  If I am called to testify on this issue, I will tell the truth.   

Regarding the research work, Joe Blum wanted to make sure the writings were properly vetted.  Which would take 2 to 3 years of peer review.  By then it would be old news.  We (I) wanted the news to be fresh as today's findings, ready for dinner time TV.  The likes of Deborah Blum, [Sacramento Bee reporter] Tom Harris and you helped get the message out to the average person so they could understand what was going on.        

Also, trying to hide/coverup the selenium costs, David Houston and Joe Blum thought that trying to hide over cover up the Kesterson selenium costs, [might give them a chance] of making it big in [the Department of Interior] on the Washington, DC scene.

While the [leaders] of FWS [in Washington] will tell you that are not holding back on [FWS selenium toxicology expert] Joe Skorupa telling the truth about the Simplot science, they will also say remember you have a good job here with plenty of promise, do not do any thing to screw it up. 

The quicker the two-headed trout getsoff the front page the better FWS and Simplot will like it. The longer it stays in the news the more likely it will get corrected by people speaking out.  And in doing so the less likelihood that the the State of Idaho, the [U.S.]  Forest Service [where much of the Idaho phosphate mining is occurring] and the EPA will fold, 

I strongly support Joe [Skorupa] and his analysis [on selenium contamination near Idaho phosphate mines].

There is an instructor from Idaho now teaching at Humboldt State University who was under pressure for writing about the Simplot/selenium issue.  While he would say he was not asked to leave, he knew that he was not welcomed to stay on at University of Idaho. So [he] left on his own.