Farmer fined $18,000 for creek contamination and fish kill

By: - April 14, 2022 4:39 pm

Creeks are protected waterways in Iowa. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A northeast Iowa farmer who hauls and applies soil conditioner to farm fields was aware one of his storage pits might be leaking but filled it anyway with the conditioner last summer, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The leak led to extensive pollution of a nearby creek that feeds the Turkey River.

In July 2021, someone reported dead fish in Dry Branch Creek near Ossian in far northeastern Iowa. A DNR investigation found contamination in the creek over a stretch of about 8 miles, with foamy water, a foul odor, maggots and exceedingly high levels of ammonia. The contamination resulted in the deaths of more than 19,000 fish, the DNR estimated.

A DNR environmental specialist traced the contamination to Milan Hageman’s small livestock operation, which has two subterranean storage pits, according to a recent DNR administrative order.

Hageman “thought the creek looked cloudy and wondered if the below building pit was leaking last fall,” the order said.

He had been storing an unspecified soil conditioner — which is often used to stabilize and fertilize farmland — in the pit, which apparently leaked into underground tiling that discharged above ground not far from the creek, the order said. Hageman constructed a series of earthen berms to contain the flow and pumped the conditioner from the leaky pit.

At the time, the flow of the creek stopped short of the Turkey River, but the DNR noted an area where the river water pooled that was foamy, foul smelling and had elevated ammonia levels.

“We don’t know how long it had been taking place,” Chris Gelner, the DNR senior environmental specialist who investigated the situation, said of the duration of the leak. “It did look like it had been quite a while. There was evidence in the creek that it had been there a while — there were maggots in the stream and other rather disgusting things.”

It was unclear how much of the conditioner had reached the creek. A fish kill assessment estimated that 19,252 fish died because of the contamination.

In an agreement with the DNR, Hageman will pay about $18,280 for the dead fish, the cost of the investigation and for an administrative fine. He further agreed to cease storage of the conditioner in the pits and to hire an engineer to examine their structural integrity, the order said.

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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.