Fertilizer Spill Kills Over 750,000 Fish in Iowa and Missouri Rivers

A massive fertilizer spill originating from NEW Cooperative in Red Oak, Iowa, has resulted in the death of more than 750,000 fish along a 60-mile stretch of river, making it the largest fish kill in Iowa in at least a decade and the fifth-largest on record. The leak, which occurred between March 9 and 11, released approximately 265,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer into the nearby East Nishnabotna River, causing widespread destruction of aquatic life.

Fertilizer Spill Kills Over 750,000 Fish in Iowa and Missouri Rivers

The Extent of the Damage

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) investigation revealed dead or dying fish for 50 miles of river, extending beyond the confluence of the East and West Nishnabotna rivers and reaching the Missouri border. In addition to the fish, numerous frogs, snakes, mussels, and earthworms were also found dead. The DNR plans to return in late spring to assess the impact on turtles that had buried themselves in the river bottom for winter, as their bloated carcasses are expected to float to the surface.

Eyewitness Account

Todd Meyer, a resident of Shenandoah, Iowa, had planned to fish the East Nishnabotna shortly after learning about the spill. Although river contaminations have occurred in the area before, they had never hindered his boating trips on either segment of the river. However, after the fertilizer spill, Meyer described the scene as “just nuts,” with the entire river filled with dead fish. He even used a drone to survey the extent of the damage a few days after the spill.

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The Impact on Missouri Waters

The devastation extended into Missouri, where the unified Nishnabotna River flows for approximately 10 miles before joining the Missouri River. Matt Combes, a science unit supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, reported a “near total fish kill” in the state, an unprecedented event where a fish kill originated out of state and moved into Missouri waters.

Assessing the Damage in Missouri

The Missouri Department of Conservation surveyed one bank of the river for about two miles and counted nearly 4,000 dead fish. This sample will be used to estimate the total number of fish killed in Missouri, which is expected to be in the tens of thousands. The department continues to monitor the Missouri and Nishnabotna rivers for any additional effects from the contamination, and it is possible that NEW Cooperative will face sanctions in both states.

The Scale of the Fish Kill

The estimated size of the fish kill in Iowa is approximately 749,000, with small fish such as minnows and chubs accounting for the vast majority of the casualties. Among the dead fish were also about 7,700 channel catfish, a popular target for anglers. Chris Larson, a fisheries supervisor for the Iowa DNR, stated that while the total restitution amount has not yet been finalized, the estimated value of the small fish is around $85,000, and the value of the catfish is approximately $115,000.

Restitution and Penalties

Combined, the two figures mentioned above would represent the largest valuation for a documented Iowa fish kill, according to DNR data. Those responsible for fish kills typically pay restitution to the state based on the number and types of fish that die. In recent cases, parties causing fish kills have paid restitution for the fish and fines of up to $10,000, the maximum amount the DNR can order administratively. However, the department has the option to seek higher penalties in district court.

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The Cause of the Spill

The spill originated at NEW Cooperative in Red Oak, Iowa, where a valve either malfunctioned or was not properly closed, causing the leak of liquid nitrogen fertilizer. The leak occurred in an area where the fertilizer is distributed to customers of the farmers’ co-op, which is not required by state rules to have barriers that would prevent a leak from reaching the river.

The Timing of the Spill

Joe Larscheid, chief of the Iowa DNR’s fisheries bureau, noted that the fish populations were likely smaller than normal when the spill occurred due to cold water temperatures and low river flows. He stated, “Thank goodness, in a way, it happened when it did. But this is a big one. It’s a lot of river miles that have been impacted.”

Other Recent Contaminations

About a week after the fertilizer spill, gasoline overflowed from an underground tank at a convenience store in Atlantic, Iowa, with some of it entering the East Nishnabotna River. However, this incident did not result in an apparent fish kill, according to the DNR.

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The devastating fertilizer spill in southwest Iowa and Missouri serves as a stark reminder of the potential environmental consequences of industrial accidents. The unprecedented scale of the fish kill, affecting over 750,000 fish and spanning 60 miles of river, highlights the need for stringent safety measures and proper maintenance of facilities handling hazardous materials.

As the Iowa DNR and Missouri Department of Conservation continue to assess the full extent of the damage and determine the appropriate restitution and penalties, it is crucial to consider the long-term impact on the affected ecosystems and the communities that rely on these waterways for recreation and livelihood.

Moving forward, it is essential for all stakeholders, including industry, government agencies, and the public, to work together to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. This may involve strengthening regulations, improving infrastructure, and promoting best practices for the safe handling and storage of potentially harmful substances.

Furthermore, ongoing monitoring and restoration efforts will be necessary to help the affected rivers and their aquatic life recover from this devastating event. By taking a proactive and collaborative approach to environmental stewardship, we can work towards protecting our precious natural resources and ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.


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