Northeast Oregon farms, food industries to buy water filters for those with contaminated wells

They’ve pledged to supply filters to at least 350 people with wells polluted with nitrates

By: - July 1, 2022 3:22 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 response to the groundwater nitrate emergency in Morrow County, a coalition of food processors, an industrial dairy and an energy company working out of the Port of Morrow will pay for water filters for hundreds of people with contaminated wells.

The Boardman Chamber of Commerce released a statement Friday saying Beef Northwest, Boardman Foods, Calbee America, Lamb Weston, Oregon Potato, PGE, Threemile Canyon Farms and Tillamook County Creamery Association will contribute to the Morrow County Health Department’s Safe Drinking Water Filtration Project. That project involves distributing reverse-osmosis filters to people who have well water testing higher than federal water safety limits. Reverse-osmosis filters are specialized systems that cost about $220 apiece and are typically installed beneath a sink. They separate nitrates and other contaminants from water molecules.

Morrow County well users draw water from the Lower Umatilla Basin, which has become increasingly contaminated with nitrates during the last 30 years from farm fertilizers, animal manure and wastewater from the Port of Morrow and other area food processors. About 1,300 households in Morrow County draw water from that basin. Many who rely on those wells for 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. 

Most of the businesses in the coalition were involved in the launch of a well water testing effort last month in coordination with the County Health Department. County Commissioner Jim Doherty said about 30 water samples were submitted a day for testing early in the effort. They are now getting about 10 to 12 samples each day to test. Doherty said up to 200 samples have come back with nitrate levels above 10 parts per million, the limit established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Most of the businesses in the coalition, located in a port-managed industrial complex, contribute to the  nitrate contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Area. A management 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.

Two fines since January

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

The action followed an investigation by the Capital Chronicle which found that the port’s contamination had persisted far longer than three years, and with little enforcement from DEQ until recently.

County Commissioner Jim Doherty said the business coalition has pledged, to start, at least $80,000 for filters and installation costs. Residents who rely on wells, and where the well water tests higher than the federal standard for nitrates, can pick up a filter from the County Health Department and install it themselves or hire a county approved plumber. The county will reimburse the plumbers, Doherty said. 

Officials plan to distribute around 350 filters over the next year. The Health Department has 30 available that can be distributed next week, Doherty said. The county has also contracted with Desert Springs Bottled Water in nearby Echo to deliver water in 5-gallon jugs for up to three months to people who are waiting for the filters. 

Doherty will seek funding from the Legislature’s Emergency Board in September to help pay for tests and filters before the private money runs out. 

“I’m hoping to push through the same money Klamath got for theirs, which was $4 million,” Doherty said. Klamath County received funding in 2021 to help with the costs of new wells at homes with dry wells. Klamath County also recently received money from the state Legislature for emergency water deliveries for people with dry wells.  

“We have the right amount of water,” Doherty joked, “but it’s the wrong kind.”

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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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