Large fertilizer spill reveals lack of regulation

posted on Friday, November 5, 2021 in Water and Land News

The Iowa DNR recently announced a settlement with Gavilon Grain, a Nebraska-based company that DNR alleges spilled approximately 432,000 gallons of fertilizer during a transfer between two aboveground storage tanks that hold two million gallons each. Because Gavilon did not have adequate secondary containment or overfill/leak detection, the fertilizer entered Bee Branch Pond. The release killed hundreds of mussels and fish, due to high concentrations of ammonia, which is toxic to aquatic life. The DNR had just stocked many of the mussels the week before as part of a multi-year restoration. 

There was a second event a week later because fertilizer that remained in the area washed into Bee Branch Pond, again leading to high concentrations of ammonia.  

DNR imposed an administrative penalty of $7,000. Though fish kills and acute degradation are a top priority for DNR enforcement, DNR’s penalty is less than the amount DNR is authorized to impose under Iowa law (see page 11, Administrative Penalties). DNR also required Gavilon to pay $244,704 in restitution for the value of the fish and mussel loss, which is authorized under a different statute. 

This release is just one in a series of manure and fertilizer releases around our state. Iowa has had nearly 500 manure and fertilizer releases since 2011, killing nearly 2 million fish in that time. “Beyond required notifications when a spill happens, DNR does not make it easy to track the type and frequency of spills resulting remediation and enforcement for releases and spills. This information is critical to understand trends and to understand if spills are one-off events or systemic problems that require new rules and regulations to protect the public and the environment,” notes Michael Schmidt, IEC Staff Attorney. 

Aboveground storage tanks like those used by Gavilon have minimal regulation, unlike  underground tanks which are subject to stringent regulation and oversight. The state does not  require leak or overfill detection for aboveground tanks of any size. DNR is limited to $10,000 in administrative penalties, which has not changed since 1992.  

“This lack of regulation is concerning. This large-scale fertilizer release represents an additional source of agricultural water pollution that harms Iowa’s waters and aquatic life beyond the in-field sources IEC has typically focused on and reflects the many ways our agricultural system fails to protect our public resources,” says Ingrid Gronstal, IEC Water Program Director. 

IEC is now evaluating what changes are needed to statute and regulation to avoid these types of problems pollution and to ensure DNR imposes appropriate penalties in the future.  

  1. clean water
  2. dnr