Morrow County declares emergency over groundwater nitrate pollution

Tap water for dozens in the area is testing up to five times the safe drinking water limits for nitrate established by the EPA

By: - June 9, 2022 3:53 pm

Guadalupe Martinez, of Boardman, says a reverse-osmosis filter installed under the sink doesn’t work properly, and the whole-house filter behind her has been broken for years. Her family drinks bottled water to protect themselves from nitrate-tainted groundwater. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

In an unprecedented action, the Morrow County Commission Thursday declared a local state of emergency over groundwater nitrate pollution that has compromised drinking water for many in the region.

Commissioners Jim Doherty and Melissa Lindsay voted to make the declaration – in effect until the end of the year – establishing the commission to act as an “emergency management agency.” This gives commissioners the authority to establish procedures to “prevent, minimize and respond” to the water pollution issue, and to coordinate with state and federal agencies for emergency financial assistance.

The pollution comes from decades of nitrogen from fertilizers, manure and food processing wastewater seeping into the groundwater and converting to nitrate. Water high in nitrate that is consumed over long periods can lead to stomach, bladder and intestinal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute, as well as miscarriages and “blue baby syndrome,” inhibiting the oxygen moving through an infant’s bloodstream, turning them blue.

An investigation by the Oregon Capital Chronicle found that despite the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s commitment to solving nitrate contamination in Morrow and Umatilla counties three decades ago, the agency failed to regulate and enforce severe penalties on polluters, including the Port of Morrow

After being fined for nitrate pollution in January, the port continued to violate its wastewater permit through the month of February, according to its most recent annual report to DEQ obtained by the Capital Chronicle.

“We are still going through the enforcement process to determine the full extent of the violations,” according to an email from Harry Esteve, communications manager for DEQ. 

In a statement Lisa Mittelsdorf, the Port’s director said that it is investing in wastewater treatment and an expansion of the land where it applies its wastewater so there is less overloading. “These are steps that require millions of dollars in investment and must be approved by numerous agencies, including DEQ,” she wrote.

“The Port of Morrow welcomes the County’s emergency declaration on groundwater. This has been a community issue for decades and it is past time to address the issue on a regional basis. The Port is eager to play its role in finding workable solutions.”

Morrow County’s emergency declaration “brings the awareness we need to the issue,” Doherty said, “and puts the folks that have been doing this on notice that there will be zero tolerance moving forward.”

The declaration includes support from the county Public Health Department and the county Emergency Manager, Paul Gray.

What happens next

In a text message Gray said, “Short term we are looking at water distribution for those affected areas, long term could be filters. Enforcing penalties would fall to the state. At my level, we are concerned with the emergency and getting resources flowing into the county.”

By declaring an emergency, Doherty said local government can get access to more state resources, including reimbursement for dozens of tests the county bought to use on people’s tap water, and money to pay for reverse osmosis filters for people with tainted wells. 

Oregon Rural Action, a nonprofit based in La Grande, has teamed up with the Morrow County Health Department to test 60 taps in an area just south of Boardman off of the city’s water system and in the nearby town of Irrigon. Both areas sit atop the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Area. 

The county estimates about 1,300 homes in Morrow County rely on well water that draws from this tainted groundwater area. Oregon Rural Action would like the county to eventually test the tap water at all of them.

Of the 60 tests the group has processed so far, most have contained nitrate levels well above the state recommended safe-drinking water limit of 7 parts per million and the federal limit of 10 parts per million.

Zaira Sanchez, director of community organizing for the group, recently delivered the results to a number of people. 

“One woman was very much pregnant, due anytime now, and her results were 41” parts per million, Sanchez said. “They were drinking that water. I felt bad delivering that news and seeing that genuine fear.”

Many of the homes they went to had reverse osmosis filters for some taps or the whole house, but even those were testing high at times, indicating the filters were not working, or the owners weren’t replacing the filters every six or so months. 

One man whose water tested at more than double the federal state drinking water limit said his wife had suffered two miscarriages. 

“He wondered if the water could be the cause,” Sanchez said.

Nitrate issue finally gaining traction

Kristin Anderson Ostrom is executive director of Oregon Rural Action. She said the county’s declaration is a first in the history of the area’s decades of nitrate pollution and groundwater contamination. 

“This is the first time local elected leaders are looking at the environmental and health risks,” She said. 

Oregon Rural Action is planning a meeting for Friday, June 17, to discuss nitrate pollution and well testing with the public. They are working out the details including time and location, but Anderson Ostrom said the county had committed to buying and delivering bottled water to be distributed. 

“We need to test wells, help people understand which filtration systems will work and we need emergency bottled water,” she said. “Providing the water needs to happen right away. People are paying $60, $80, $100 a month for bottled water.”

In the long run, Anderson Ostrom said the state and county need to get filters to everyone who needs one.

Doherty said he has talked with Gov. Kate Brown and with state agencies in recent weeks to get a better understanding of what kind of resources will be available to address drinking water concerns in the months ahead. 

“We kept hearing this is something we’ve got to do,” Doherty said about declaring an emergency. “It opens up a lot of doors and takes it out of the political realm. Once you move to a state of emergency, we have to step in and fully work on water quality,” he said.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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