Iowa Confronts Environmental Catastrophe After Massive Spill

dead fish floating on water

Iowa to take action after devastating fish kill wipes out a 60-mile stretch of river over two states. (Photo by Colby Winfield on Unsplash)

by | May 27, 2024

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responds to over 150 oil and chemical spills yearly in U.S. waters. These incidents pose significant threats to life, property, and public natural resources and can substantially disrupt marine transportation, leading to widespread economic impacts.

Major Fertilizer Spill in Red Oak, Iowa

On March 14, 2024, the Great Lakes Scientific Support Coordinator contacted the New England counterpart for assistance following a significant liquid nitrogen spill in Red Oak, Iowa. The incident on March 10 involved a leak of about 265,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer from a storage tank at the NEW Cooperative facility in Red Oak. This followed an alert from the National Response Center to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Impact on Aquatic Life

The fertilizer spill traveled down a ditch, through a culvert in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee, and into the East Nishnabotna River. This caused a devastating fish kill, wiping out most aquatic life across a 60-mile stretch of rivers from Iowa into Missouri. Officials estimate that approximately 750,000 fish were killed, making this the region’s most ecologically destructive chemical spill in over a decade.

Legal and Regulatory Actions

In response to the spill, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission has voted unanimously to refer the case to the state attorney general’s office. The commission determined that the $10,000 administrative fine limit within their scope is insufficient for such a large-scale contamination event, so the referral to the attorney general would allow higher penalties through court action against the responsible company, NEW Cooperative.

NOAA’s Role in Spill Response

The Red Oak incident underscores the importance of robust spill response mechanisms and the need for stringent regulatory actions to hold responsible parties accountable. As NOAA continues to address numerous spills annually, the collaboration between federal agencies, state authorities, and local stakeholders remains essential in safeguarding the environment and mitigating the adverse effects of such incidents.

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