Le Mars company fined for two fish kills in 4 years

By: - March 29, 2022 3:30 pm

Nor-Am Cold Storage, in Le Mars, failed to report an ammonia discharge into a creek in September 2021 that killed fish, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. (Photo by Jacob Simonsen/Iowa DNR)

A Le Mars company leaked ammonia-laden water into a nearby creek twice in less than four years — which led to small fish kills each time — and has been fined a total of $17,000, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports.

Nor-Am Cold Storage provides refrigerated warehouse storage and other related services. Both leaks happened when the company was servicing its rooftop refrigeration units, which use anhydrous ammonia as a refrigerant, in 2018 and 2021.

The creek contamination was first noticed in May 2018 by baseball game spectators at a city park who could smell the ammonia. The creek flows through the middle of the park and into the Floyd River.

Ammonia-laden water had overflowed from a bucket on the Nor-Am roof and into a drain that empties into a city storm sewer. The company estimated that 21 pounds of ammonia had leaked into the sewer and creek, a DNR report said.

Nor-Am uses massive rooftop refrigeration units to cool its warehouses. (Photo by Jacob Simonsen/Iowa DNR)

DNR environmental specialists noted about 50 dead minnows and chubs the next day. Nor-Am pumped contaminated water out of the creek for at least eight hours to help prevent ammonia from reaching the river, the report said. No further environmental impacts were reported.

Nor-Am workers had previously allowed ammonia-tainted water to flow into the rooftop drain, said DNR environmental specialist Jacob Simonsen, but before the 2018 leak it had drained into a parking lot where the ammonia dissipated. During an expansion of the facility, that drain was tied into the city’s stormwater system, he said.

Nor-Am agreed to pay a $7,000 fine for the contamination, according to an agreement with the DNR.

In September 2021, the city of Le Mars reported another fish kill in the creek to the DNR. Simonsen said he saw about 20 fish in or near the creek that appeared to have died days before. Indeed, Nor-Am confirmed another leak had happened three days before the fish kill was reported, and that about four pounds of ammonia had leaked.

“The only way we knew about it was that the city called about dead fish,” Simonsen told Iowa Capital Dispatch.

Nor-Am is required to report such discharges to the DNR within six hours. It’s unclear why it didn’t. The company did not immediately respond to a request to comment for this article.

This month, Nor-Am agreed to pay a fine of $10,000 for the second leak. It is expected to submit a plan to the DNR to prevent future creek contaminations, Simonsen said. That might include using a larger storage container to capture ammonia-laden water from the rooftop equipment.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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