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Fertilizer spill in Iowa causes massive fish deaths

A significant leak at NEW Cooperative in Red Oak, Iowa, resulted in over 750,000 fish deaths.

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Christel SAGNIEZ | Pixabay

Jared Strong reported on a fertilizer spill in southwest Iowa for Iowa Capital Dispatch. The spill resulted in one of the state's most severe ecological disasters in recent history, killing an estimated 750,000 fish over a 60-mile stretch of the East Nishnabotna River. This event marks Iowa's largest fish kill in a decade and ranks as the fifth-largest on record.

The spill occurred at NEW Cooperative in Red Oak, where a malfunctioning or improperly closed valve leaked about 265,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer, most of which flowed into the river. This incident took place in an area where barriers to prevent such leaks are not mandated by state regulations.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) discovered the devastating impact on aquatic life along 50 miles of the river, extending into Missouri. The kill included not only fish but also frogs, snakes, mussels, and earthworms. The DNR plans to assess the spill's effect on turtles once they emerge in spring.

Despite the spill happening during a period of low fish populations due to cold temperatures and reduced river flow, the extent of the damage was substantial. "It's a lot of river miles that have been impacted," commented Joe Larscheid, chief of the Iowa DNR's fisheries bureau.

The spill's repercussions continued into Missouri, where authorities reported a "near total fish kill" in the Nishnabotna River before it joins the Missouri River. The Missouri Department of Conservation is conducting assessments to estimate the total fish deaths, which are expected to be in the tens of thousands.

Restitution for the fish kill in Iowa, calculated based on the number and type of fish lost, is yet to be finalized. However, initial estimates suggest that the cost for the smaller fish could be around $85,000, with the value of the approximately 7,700 channel catfish reaching about $115,000. This total would represent the highest valuation for a documented fish kill in Iowa.

Authorities are considering sanctions against NEW Cooperative in both Iowa and Missouri. Past incidents leading to fish kills typically resulted in fish restitutions and fines up to $10,000, the maximum administratively enforceable by the DNR. Higher penalties may be sought in district court.

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