At virtual town hall, Morrow County residents press Sen. Wyden over groundwater nitrate issues

Wyden is focusing on a bill that would provide relief to millions across the U.S. who lack clean drinking water infrastructure

By: - July 8, 2022 5:45 am

Sen. Ron Wyden holding a town hall on July 6, 2022. (Screenshot)

At a virtual town hall Wednesday afternoon, Oregon’s senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden was pressed by several Morrow County residents about what he would do to help with the area’s groundwater nitrate pollution issues. 

A resident of Boardman told Wyden: “​​I’m going to keep it simple because it’s a hot topic in town, and out of town, and it’s the current water situation. I’m sure you are well aware of it.” She then asked: “Are we going to get any help to fix this?”

She was referring to the area’s contaminated groundwater, which the Capital Chronicle detailed in a series starting in May and has continued to write about. 

Wyden sidestepped the question. He said in March he had proposed a bill called the WASH Act, referring to water, sanitation and hygiene, “to kind of close the access gap with drinking water and trying to make available grants for areas like this.”

The act would establish a working group to survey and collect data on households nationwide that lack safe drinking water, including in Morrow County. It would require the federal Environmental Protection Agency to analyze the cost of improving drinking water in areas of need and create grants for low-income people and communities to help pay for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. 

“Currently, federal data fails to accurately measure the water access gap in America, resulting in insufficient financial assistance and infrastructure investment in sanitation and clean drinking water for underserved communities nationwide,” a summary of the bill reads.

Morrow County is among the areas in need of clean drinking water.

Many residents rely on well water from the Lower Umatilla Basin, which has become increasingly contaminated by nitrates over the last 30 years from farm fertilizers, animal manure and wastewater from the port and area food processors. 

I have a well in Morrow County, and there's many residents from rural counties that have tested, and we are way over the limits for the state and federal limits of nitrates.

– Boardman resident

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. 

Up to 1,300 households are drawing water from that basin in Morrow County. Many who rely on those wells for their drinking water are low-income and Latino.

About 25 people joined the meeting, which was streamed through Facebook Live and hosted by the nonprofit People’s Town Hall. People’s Town Hall is a national organization convening conversations between constituents and their elected officials. 

Questions were submitted to a moderator or asked live on video.

Several Boardman residents asked Wyden why the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality had been allowed to lapse on enforcement of the Port of Morrow’s wastewater permit and whether the EPA would intervene. 

The Capital Chronicle’s investigation found the port allowed more than 600 tons of excess nitrogen from its wastewater to be applied on farmland atop the area’s contaminated aquifer during the last decade alone. During that time, the DEQ did little to enforce penalties on the port when it violated the terms of its wastewater permit.

“I have a well in Morrow County, and there’s many residents from rural counties that have tested, and we are way over the limits for the state and federal limits of nitrates,” another Boardman resident said. 

“The DEQ – who has been underfunded and basically silent – in the last four years hasn’t done anything,” he added, asking: “What kind of budget or funds are you getting to help facilitate the filters for the people that need it, the water testing? Can we get the EPA to come in here and look at these issues?”

Wyden said the “federal government does have the authority to delegate to state agencies like DEQ.”

The EPA is considering its involvement with the area’s groundwater management, including use of its emergency authority under the federal Clean Water Act, in response to a petition filed several years ago by environmental groups. 

“I think, overwhelmingly, you know, people want a water supply that is clean,” Wyden said, referring to the idea that a coalition of local governments, businesses and residents would ideally come together to tackle the issue. 

“They understand how important that is for families and the future. I mean, in other words, you can’t get people to come to an area with no clean water.” He said data from the WASH Act would allow the affected parties to come together over more data. 

He did not comment on data from DEQ and the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area showing that for years, state agencies knew the aquifer was contaminated and likely impacting hundreds of well users. 

A spokesperson, Hank Stern, said in an email that Wyden is concerned about water quality.

“Making sure every community in Oregon has access to clean drinking water is a top priority for Senator Wyden, which is why he is working hard with his colleagues to find additional federal resources for communities in our state,” Stern said.

In June, the Morrow County Commission declared an emergency over groundwater contamination. A group that includes Commissioner Jim Doherty, the Morrow County Health Department, the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action and a coalition of agriculture and food processing businesses, have been testing the tap water of people who rely on wells. They also have launched a program to give residents free reverse-osmosis filters, which clean out nitrates and other toxins. They have 30 filters available to distribute so far. 

Doherty said he has still not heard of any direct federal aid coming from Oregon’s congressional delegation – Oregon’s U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz represents the area in Congress – to address the contamination.

Stern said that Wyden’s WASH Act “is one tool in the toolbox, alongside other federal programs and more federal funding needed, but the state of Oregon has a role to play as well in improving water quality for communities. Senator Wyden would like to see the state doing more here.” 

Oregon’s other Democratic senator, Jeff Merkley, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, have co-sponsored the act. It is sitting with the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

 

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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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