IEC Statement on Referral of New Cooperative enforcement to the Iowa Attorney General's Office

posted on Wednesday, May 22, 2024 in Water and Land News

The New Cooperative fertilizer release in March 2024 was one of the most significant water pollution events in recent memory. By discharging 265,000 gallons of concentrated fertilizer, the discharge decimated the ecosystem by killing an estimated 749,000 fish and untold other aquatic life. The damage stretched 60 miles downstream until the contaminated Nishnabotna River reached the Missouri River.  

Red Oak Plant

Photo courtesy of Iowa Capital Dispatch and Jared Strong.

This is the type of case that should be referred for elevated enforcement action through the Attorney General’s office. The Department of Natural Resources can only assess $10,000 in administrative penalties – as limited by the state legislature since 1992 – which fails to reflect the seriousness of this case. Referral to the AG’s office is an important first step in seeking justice for the river, wildlife, and communities impacted by this devastating incident. Ultimately, the enforcement taken by the AG’s office must reflect the grave impact the fertilizer spill has had on the East Nishnabotna River.  

Beyond this case, we must demand more protective laws and rules that will prevent this type of event from happening again. We need stronger protections against pollution events like this, including increased requirements for containment barriers to prevent fertilizer and other farm chemical spills and discharges from reaching surface water. The DNR must have adequate funding and staffing to properly inspect for compliance with regulations and investigate and enforce violations. And penalties need to be severe enough to provide actual deterrence against violations, rather than being so menial that they are viewed merely as the cost of doing business in Iowa.  

Over the next year, IEC will work toward achieving these goals by communicating with the agencies responsible for implementing and enforcing fertilizer regulations and developing solutions through legislative action when the state legislature returns for the 2025 session. 

About The Author

Michael Schmidt joined the Council in 2019 and works across IEC's program areas. He most recently worked as a staff attorney for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he focused on clean water and mining issues through enforcement, permitting, and rulemaking actions. He previously worked for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a state-based nonprofit, where he engaged in legal, legislative, and policy advocacy on water quality issues. He has a law degree from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. in political science from the University of Iowa.