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Fertilizer spill leads to ‘near total fish kill’ in river in Iowa, part of Missouri; has not flowed into Missouri River


A fertilizer spill into the Nishnabotna River containing 1,500 tons of a liquid nitrogen solution is annihilating the aquatic wildlife in the river, including the portion in Missouri.

According to Ecological Health Unit Science Supervisor with the Missouri Department of Conservation Matt Combes, the spill has affected 60 miles of the Nishnabotna River, including the 10 miles in Missouri. Combes said the spill has led to a near total fish kill, with an estimated 40,000 fish dying in the Missouri portion.

"That included catfish of the size that anglers like to catch and shovelnose sturgeon... and blue suckers and other native fish that we have you know, been trying to protect for decades and trying to bring their population back," Combes said.

The Missouri River has not been effected, despite the Nishnabotna River flowing into it, according to Combes.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources stated the spill occurred on March 11, after a valve to an above ground storage tank was left open overnight. The investigation is on-going.

Combes said a reaction between liquid nitrogen and water, when it travels into a stream, can create ammonia, which is what happened in this case. He said the gas is toxic to aquatic animals, which is why the thousands of fish were killed after the spill.

Director of the Missouri River Relief Steve Schnarr said he hopes the events show people how important it is to take care of large bodies of water, especially when it can have a ripple effect between states.

"You know, things that happen anywhere along a river or stream, you know can have impacts far downstream," Schnarr said. "So, it's crucial if we want healthy rivers and streams, we have to protect them through regulation."

Combes said the department was made aware of the spill and the fact that it was traveling down the river a day ahead of time. However, he said they were unaware of how severe the effects would be.

Most of the initial spill has exited the system, according to Combes.

However, he said the nitrogen is still able to settle towards the bottom of the river, and when mixed with warmer temperatures heading into the spring months, can lead to the creation of more ammonia. This would lead to the possibility of more aquatic life being killed.

He noted the best chance for mitigating this from happening is a flood.

"If it would rain in Iowa and raise the river levels, that would at least push the pollutants out of the Nishnabatna river...the consequences of that are that in then goes into the Missouri River," Combes said.

When the initial spill was reported, Combes said some individuals experienced burning in the lungs.

However, he said that part has since passed and there should not be a direct way in which the spill can affect humans, despite the decrease in aquatic life available for catching and consuming.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation's website, the MDC responds to around 100 fish kills every year. Pollution from municipal and agricultural waste water have been the leading cause of fish kills in the state since the 1940s, the website states.

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Nia Hinson


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