Troubled by inaction, Morrow County commissioner makes safe water a top issue
SPECIAL REPORT: Now, Umatilla County joins in effort to test where residents draw well water from the same contaminated aquifer
Ana Piñeyro, a communicable disease specialist, and Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty outside the county health department’s office before going out to test taps. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
The first time Jim Doherty visited Boardman’s West Glen neighborhood to test people’s tap water, he had six plastic bottles from a lab in Umatilla and communicated with residents using broken Spanglish from his years working on farms and ranches.
Most of the homes in the mostly Latino neighborhood in northeast Oregon are prefabricated, on large lots, with long gravel driveways where cars and kids’ toys are parked. The area is surrounded by farmland. The homeowners draw their water from wells tapping an aquifer increasingly contaminated with nitrates.
Doherty, chair of the Morrow County Commission, went door to door and asked if he could see people’s wells, whether they used any water filters and knew what nitrates were.
His informal survey in April was a couple months after state officials declared that the Port of Morrow, Morrow County’s economic engine, had been violating its wastewater permit for three years. In January, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the port a record $1.3 million for allowing more than 165 tons of excess nitrogen in the form of recycled wastewater to be piped onto area farm fields.
News of the penalty got Doherty worked up. He’d been involved in voluntary efforts over the past three decades to get farmers, large animal feeding operations, local food processors and the port to voluntarily curb their use of fertilizers and the spread of manure and nutrient-rich wastewater that was further contaminating the groundwater with nitrates.
Water high in nitrates 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 oxygen from moving through an infant’s bloodstream.
The fine against the port was further proof for Doherty that the issue didn’t matter to the powerful interests in the region.
Doherty said that for years the relationship between the port and local government “was the tail wagging the dog.”
“The county didn’t question what they were doing,” Doherty said.
Doherty was elected to the county commission in 2016.
“My first four years, it was a bit of a sea change here,” Doherty said. “Heretofore they had the run of the county. Commissioner (Melissa) Lindsay and I stepped up and tried to level the playing field, I think.”
In his 2020 bid for reelection, Doherty ran against a member of the port’s budget committee.
“One of the major drum beats was that I was not, quote unquote, ‘business friendly,’” he said.
“I thought we needed to take a much more holistic approach to planning in the county,” he said.
Doherty won in a runoff election that November and remains on the commission until 2025.
With a renewed sense of duty and a continuing sense of despair at how little had been done to address the contamination over the years, Doherty set out to test people’s tap water and bring the human cost into focus.
He figured if he could show that nitrates were contaminating people’s wells and getting into their drinking water, he could draw attention to the pollution and maybe get state or federal money to help people pay for water filters.
He sent the six containers of tap water from West Glen for testing at the lab in Umatilla.
Two days later, a technician called.
Typically, the lab would email results, but the nitrate levels – even from sinks that had reverse-osmosis filters to remove nitrate – were so high that the technician had an obligation to report the results to Doherty immediately.
“They were asking me, ‘No one is drinking this, right?’” he said.
The limit for nitrates in drinking water set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency is 10 parts per million, and the state recommends a limit of 7 parts per million.
All six water samples had high nitrate levels, between 29 parts per million to nearly 48 parts per million – up to nearly five times the federal safe limit.
Well-testing crusade begins
To test more wells across the county, Doherty tapped Ana Pineyro, a communicable disease coordinator at the Morrow County Health Department who had helped handle the region’s Covid response. Pineyro, from Uruguay, had mobilized the department and community groups to reach Spanish-speaking residents with Covid vaccines at their homes. The effort boosted the overall vaccination rate among Latinos in the county above that of other demographic groups, according to the department.
Doherty hoped Pineyro would help him do the same thing with the water tests – go door to door and gather samples from at least 100 taps, talk with people about nitrate contamination and find out who had reverse osmosis filters. They had $3,500 from the county, and each test was $35.
“I wasn’t aware of how many houses we have in the county that use well water, or how many people may be in this situation,” Pineyro said. “When he showed me the results, I was like, yeah, we have a problem.”
Armed with plastic bottles to collect water samples and printouts of a Spanish-language flier on the harms of nitrates in drinking water, they went to work.
They learned quickly that most people had been buying bottled water for years and were aware that farming chemicals might be in their wells, but were unsure what exactly the compounds were.
Still, some said they cooked with the well water, used it for their morning coffee or considered it safe because they boiled it. Boiling nitrate-contaminated water actually raises the nitrate level because the compound stays while water molecules evaporate.
Some homes had reverse-osmosis filters in the kitchen costing $150 or more. Those systems push water through a membrane that separates the nitrate from the hydrogen and oxygen molecules that make water. A few had reverse-osmosis filters that were hooked up to taps throughout the whole house. Many had stacks of water bottles in their homes or relied on three-gallon jugs. Water high in nitrates isn’t harmful to wash with, just to consume.
Some residents assumed that refrigerator or pitcher filters remove all contaminants, but they do not remove nitrates.
When Pineyro shared test results with residents, they fired off questions.
“They want to know which filters, how much they cost, who’s gonna pay for that,” she said.
More than one-third of the population in Morrow County is Latino and more than 40% of people in the county live below the federal poverty line – about $27,750 for a family of four. According to U.S. Census data, the average per-capita income in 2019 was about $23,680 in the county. More than 30% of people in Morrow County live in mobile homes, the highest percentage for any county in Oregon, and most rely on wells.
Many Doherty and Pineyro met said that they had never been contacted by a representative from a state agency. They told Pineyro: “If we are having this bad water because somebody else is not doing their job, we want them to fix it,” she said.
There are at least 1,300 private domestic wells in Morrow County. In May, Doherty and Pineyro expanded their testing effort with help from Oregon Rural Action, a nonprofit based in La Grande.
The group has tested the tap water in 59 homes that rely on wells around Boardman and nearby Irrigon. Only 17 had reverse osmosis filters.
More than 80% of the water had nitrate levels above the EPA safe drinking water limit. Even among the 17 with reverse-osmosis filters, 11 tested high, meaning it’s possible the water is too hard for the filter to properly work, or the homeowner hadn’t replaced the membrane inside the filter frequently enough.
Zaira Sanchez is director of community organizing for Oregon Rural Action. She recently delivered test 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.”
One man whose water was more than double the federal nitrate limit said his wife had suffered two miscarriages.
“He wondered if the water could be the cause,” Sanchez said.
On June 9, Morrow County declared an emergency over the groundwater nitrate issue.
On Friday at 6 p.m. ,Doherty will meet with people in the West Glen neighborhood, also known as rural Boardman, who have had their taps tested. He’ll answer questions and drop off gallons of bottled water
That one-time water drop needs to be repeated until filter systems have been distributed, said Kristin Anderson Ostrom, Oregon Rural Action’s executive director.
“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 homes relying on the contaminated aquifer.
Next week, the Umatilla County Public Health Department will launch a well testing program focused on homes that draw well water from the same aquifer beneath Morrow County. They’re both in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Area.
People will be able to pick up test kits from the Public Health Department office, fill bottles with their water sample and return them for testing, according to the department’s director, Joseph Fiumara Jr. The county will cover the cost of testing the water for coliform bacteria, nitrates and arsenic.
“We hope this will allow us to do two things,” Fiumara wrote in an email. “Inform the residents of any potential issues with their domestic drinking water,” and “allow Umatilla County Health to gather data, map it and gain a better understanding of the current scope/scale of any concerns.”
To pay for the testing, the county is drawing on public health funding it received from the 2022 Legislature.
“This is the first time we have received this level of investment for work in the area of environmental health emergency preparedness, and that allows us to implement programs like this,” Fiumara wrote.
Umatilla County does not have plans to distribute water filters or declare an emergency, yet.
“Decisions made in the future will be based on the data we are able to collect from this pilot,” Fiumara wrote.
Passing the buck
No agency in Oregon is required to test or regulate the safety of water in private domestic wells. The Oregon Health Authority is responsible for warning people of the health risks of nitrates in well water. But until recently, the agency has done little to inform people in Morrow and Umatilla counties about the risk, limiting its outreach to information on its website. Jonathan Modie, a department spokesperson, said in an email that the agency is relying on the Office of Emergency Management to help Morrow and Umatilla counties with short-term emergency needs. He said it will ask the Legislature for money for educational outreach and health assessments.
In April, Morrow and Umatilla county commissioners wrote to Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, seeking $2.7 million for more testing kits and filtering systems for homes with tainted wells. They estimate at least 2,300 homes across both counties rely on wells that could be high in nitrates.
Molly Prescott, Merkley’s press secretary, said his office is “reviewing” the request.
Doherty said he has run out of local money to pay for the tests. He said that since the county declared a public health emergency over the groundwater nitrate issue, he and Pineyro have received 10 to 12 calls and emails a day asking for tap water testing.
“I see my phone number on the Facebook conversations out there saying, ‘Hey, if you want your well tested, here’s the number,” Doherty said.
To fund the testing and filters, Doherty estimates the county will need about $8 million. That includes $3 million for ongoing well testing and $5 million for reverse osmosis systems and annual replacement filters. The effort needs to be sustained for at least the next 15 years, he said.
Doherty has talked with Gov. Kate Brown, who recommended he seek funds from the legislative Emergency Board during the September legislative days. He’s talked with state Sen. Bill Hansel, R-Athena, about proposing long-term funding during those meetings.
Doherty said those responsible for the pollution should bear some of the costs.
“I think this fine should be turned right back around and go into the homes of these folks,” Doherty said of the port’s $1.3 million fine from DEQ. “I can’t think of a better use of those dollars.”
The port is appealing the fine. In a statement Lisa Mittelsdorf, the Port’s director said, “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.”
Doherty said he recently talked with people at Paradise Bottled Water in Kennewick, Washington, which sends bottled water to residents of the lower Yakima Valley where the groundwater also is contaminated with nitrates. The Environmental Protection Agency has managed that basin since 2013, and has negotiated an agreement with area polluters, mostly dairy farmers, who contribute to a fund for clean water systems for well users.
“They said they’re delivering about $80 to $100 dollars a month in water up in Yakima to those homes,” Doherty said.
Another company outfits people’s sinks with reverse-osmosis systems and makes sure they get new filters every six to eight months, he said.
The EPA is currently considering whether to take the same emergency authority over the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Area, and will likely make a decision by September, according to Bill Dunbar, a public affairs officer for the agency’s Northwest Region.
Doherty is scheduled to meet with Merkley on Friday, June 17, to discuss clean drinking water in Morrow County and what needs to be done.
“We need to find someone to open the wallet between now and September,” Doherty said. “There isn’t anybody that doesn’t recognize it’s an emergency.”
Doherty said when it comes to handling the contaminated wells in Morrow County, it should be the local public health authority and the health district that handle the testing, but he said they need state or federal funding.
“In the end, we’re tasked with protecting the welfare of all these folks,” he said.
Contamination will affect area for generations
Hank Johnson is a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Oregon Water Science Center. He studies “legacy nitrates,” those are nitrates that accumulate in groundwater and soil for decades and continue to show up in wells and rivers for years.
Because the water in the Lower Umatilla Groundwater Basin moves through the soil by just a few feet per day in many areas, the excess nitrates are likely to be a problem for the next generation or two, according to Johnson.
“If nitrate application in the basin stopped today, the children and grandchildren of the people living there today would still be dealing with nitrate issues,” Johnson said.
One of those early few taps that Doherty tested was at Mayra Colin’s house. She lives with her three sons and her parents in her childhood home in the West Glen neighborhood, where they share a well with two other neighbors.
Despite having a kitchen filter, Doherty’s test showed that her tap water contained 35 parts per million of nitrates.
She had no idea it was that high, she said.
“I was shocked,” she said. Her water was more than three times higher than the federal recommended level. The Colins don’t drink the water. She, her parents and her sons only drink water from plastic gallon jugs and pallets of individual 12-oz bottles.
“We’ve kind of trained them to drink from the gallons that we bought at the store,” Colin said of her sons. “I don’t want them to get in the habit of getting it out of the faucet.”
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