Farmers fined for fertilizer creek contamination and fish kill

By: - April 4, 2023 2:13 pm

A high concentration of fertilizer in Dry Creek killed more than 50,000 fish in September 2022, the Department of Natural Resources reported. (Photo by Dan Kirby/Iowa DNR)

Contaminated water from a fertilizer containment area at an eastern Iowa farm was routinely pumped into a tile drain, which poisoned a pond, creek and more than 50,000 small fish, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Patrick and Tracy Hammes LLC was recently fined $10,000 and ordered to pay an additional $11,339.89 for the fish kill and investigation last year.

The company owns a farm northwest of Coggon that was found to be the source of a fish kill in nearby Dry Creek that was reported in September 2022, a DNR administrative order said.

Water from the farm — which has storage facilities for grain and liquid ammonia fertilizer — can wash into drains that link into underground tiling from the surrounding fields. That tiling empties into a small waterway that flows to a pond and then to the creek.

The contamination was discovered when someone who rents farmland near the pond paid someone to reconstruct its dam. The farmer wanted to be able to drive his farm equipment on the dam, as a link between the fields.

“It is likely that frequent discharges entered the pond, where it accumulated over time and/or discharged slowly,” Brian Jergenson, a DNR environmental specialist who investigated the incident, concluded. “When the pond dam was breached for reconstruction a large amount of chemically impacted water caused the fish kill.”

A test of the remaining pond water showed ammonia nitrogen concentrations of 490 parts per million, whereas 3 parts per million is typically considered safe for aquatic life.

The farm tenant noted a strong chemical smell when the dam was breached and “was surprised that he did not see fish in the pond, as the pond had been stocked” with fish the year before, according to a DNR order.

Another DNR officer who conducted the fish kill investigation noted a more than 6-mile-long stretch of Dry Creek that was largely void of living aquatic life. The officer estimated there were about 50,700 dead fish, along with dead frog tadpoles, leeches and worms.

The recent DNR administrative order levied the fine and restitution and ordered the Hammeses to identify all drains at the facility, figure out where they lead and develop procedures to prevent further waterway contaminations.

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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.