Downriver from the Red Oak Fertilizer Spill

Downriver from the Red Oak Fertilizer Spill

By Karlee Liberty, Edited by Olivia Brien

Aha, Relatives! By now, you may have heard about the fertilizer spill in Red Oak, Iowa, in early March. A hose valve left open at NEW Cooperative, Inc. leaked approximately 265,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer into the East Nishnabotna River. The East Nishnabotna is a tributary that feeds into the Missouri River. While the spill devastated the wildlife in the East Nishnabotna, causing a near total fish kill in the 60 miles of impacted river, the Missouri River is not expected to sustain any major ramifications from this spill.

Looking upriver on Nyisoji, the Missouri River, from the Four State Lookout in White Cloud, Kansas. A massive fertilizer spill in Iowa has devastated fish downstream, and some dead fish have even turned up in Missouri. Photo by Olivia Brien.

How do we know this, though? We have a relatively new department within our Tribal government dedicated to this kind of work: The Land and Water Department! Three days after the EPA received notification of the spill, they reached out to our Environmental Scientist, Kate Kyser, to inform her of the potential impact on our monitored waters. Thanks to the clean-up efforts at the source of the spill – which is 100 miles away from our tribal lands – and the expected nitrogen dilution once the remaining chemical enters the Missouri River, the EPA doesn’t anticipate there to be any consequences to the wildlife or the waters of the Missouri. That said, the EPA still responsibly notified their partners along the river. Since this spill would not have any notable effect on our waters, the Land and Water Department did not have any outward actions they needed to take. Still, we wanted to take this chance to introduce the department to our members.



The Land and Water Department was officially formed last fall with the hiring of Kate, and is funded through an EPA grant written by Michael Kelley in early 2023. The funding for this department is expected to continue to come through similar EPA grants as the department grows. In addition to Kate, the department is also staffed by Zack Towey, who has worked with the Tribe for the past three years on various projects as a GIS and Environmental Technician. The Land and Water Department has two primary focuses: Water Sovereignty and Education. The department is here to protect the Tribe’s resources and to help educate our members on what that means and how they can help. They will be working to help the Tribe gain data sovereignty over the knowledge of our waters through independent water sampling and surveys. This data will help us better understand the current status of our resources, track trends as time goes on, and make us better prepared to catch on to any issues that may arise. They also hope to provide educational programs to tribal members around various environmental topics.



The Land and Water Department is still in its early stages, but they are eager to connect with the Tribe. Be on the lookout for new social channels from them soon, where they will be able to update the Tribe directly about events, such as the Red Oak fertilizer spill, in the future! In the meantime, if you have any questions or concerns about any environmental topics or issues, they are more than happy to help! Their contact information is below:



Phone: 785-850-1649

Kate –

Zack – 



In Zack’s words, the Land and Water Department hopes to “create a clearer picture of sovereignty and what it means for [the tribe].” We should all be very excited to see how this new department grows!



Read more about the devastating spill here.