Northeast Oregon food processors, dairy, offer to pay for water testing

Several companies with plants at the Port of Morrow have offered to help the Morrow County Health Department with its efforts

By: - June 20, 2022 2:45 pm

Ana Piñeiro of the Morrow County Health Department visits with a resident in West Glen and asks to test her tap water. Bottles of water line the table outside the house. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

In response to the groundwater nitrate emergency in Morrow County, several food processors, an industrial farm and an Amazon data center have stepped up to pay for drinking water testing and water distribution for people who rely on wells drawing from a contaminated aquifer. 

Amazon Web Services, Boardman Foods, Lamb Weston, Calbee North America, Tillamook County Creamery Association and Threemile Canyon Farms are creating a business coalition to help the Morrow County Health Department with its work addressing clean drinking water needs, according to a Monday press release from the Boardman Chamber of Commerce.

The move comes after Jim Doherty, Morrow County commissioner, launched an effort to step up testing and provide water to residents living atop the polluted aquifer. He has been seeking money from state and federal authorities to address the emergency.

Nearly all of the businesses in the newly-announced coalition operate from the industrial complex managed by the Port of Morrow. 

The government agency was recently found to have pumped 260 tons of excess nitrogen onto area farms, violating state restrictions. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the port $1.3 million in January, then last week increased the fine by $800,000 after concluding that the port continued to pump illegal amounts of nitrogen onto area farms even after the January enforcement action was taken. 

That excess nitrogen is “likely to cause additional adverse impacts” to the groundwater nitrate levels, according to the revised penalty from DEQ. 

Port officials were contesting the original penalty.

Morrow County well users draw on water from the Lower Umatilla Basin, which has become increasingly contaminated by nitrate during the last 30 years from farm fertilizers, animal manure and wastewater from the port and area food processors. There are about 1,300 private domestic wells drawing water from that basin in Morrow County. Many who rely on those wells for their drinking water are low income and Latino.

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. 

An investigation earlier this year by the Capital Chronicle found the port’s contamination had persisted far longer than three years, and with little enforcement from DEQ until recently.

Many of the companies that have stepped up to help with water testing and with clean water distribution are also sources of nitrate contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Area. The Groundwater Management Area Committee responsible for tackling the nitrate problem estimates that about 70% of the contamination is from farms, about 20% from dairy and cattle operations and about 5% is from food processors and the port. 

One of the partners in the new collaboration is Threemile Canyon Farms, a large dairy that supplies the Tillamook County Creamery Association. The dairy, located in Boardman, operates outside the port complex.

Boardman Foods will start giving away water test kits starting next Monday, June 27 at its onion processing plant at the Port of Morrow. The giveaway will continue each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The company will accept water samples to send off for testing.

Beginning Thursday, June 23, the Boardman chamber will also provide testing at its offices. 

“This is an issue that affects all of our neighbors — local businesses are ready to serve and help,” according to a staement from Debbie Radie, vice president of operations for Boardman Foods.

The chamber’s statement left unclear how other businesses will be involved in the testing and water distribution efforts. The chamber’s executive director, Torrie Griggs, did not respond to calls or emails Monday. 

The offer from local businesses to support clean water efforts comes on top of those launching this week from the Morrow County Emergency Management team and the Oregon Department of Human Services. 

Beginning Tuesday, June 21, bottled water will be available at the Morrow County Public Health Department office in Boardman from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 6 p.m. On Fridays, water will be available from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m. 

The water is only for domestic well owners whose taps have tested 10 parts per million or higher of nitrate or for those well owners who are waiting for their wells to be tested. County officials are asking that well owners bring proof of their nitrate test results to receive the emergency water supplies.  

Supplies are limited to two gallons per person each day, totalling 14 gallons per person per week. Water can be delivered to people unable to travel to the distribution sites.

Get water test:

Boardman Foods, 71320 E Columbia Blvd, Boardman OR 97818

Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Boardman Chamber of Commerce, 101 Olson Rd, Boardman OR 97818 

Get bottled water: 

Boardman: 

Public Health Department, 101 Boardman Ave. NW

Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 to noon and 1 to 6 p.m.

Fridays, 10 a.m. until noon and 1 to 4 p.m.

Irrigon:

County Government Building in Irrigon, 215 NE Main Ave.

Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 to noon and 1 to 6 p.m.

Fridays, 10 a.m. until noon and 1 to 4 p.m

Get safe drinking water delivered:

Call 541-256-0514 to be placed on the water delivery list.

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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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