Residents in Morrow County demand urgent aid from state for contaminated water

At a community meeting Thursday evening, residents gave impassioned testimony about what it’s been like to live without safe drinking water for years

By: - September 16, 2022 12:27 pm

Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty discusses nitrate contamination in the drinking water at a meeting Sept. 15 in Boardman. (Rafael Romero/Oregon Rural Action)

More than 100 Boardman residents attended a meeting Thursday evening to demand the state guarantee access to safe drinking water in Morrow County. 

The meeting, hosted by the nonprofit environmental and social justice advocacy group Oregon Rural Action, was the largest public meeting regarding drinking water issues since the county declared an emergency over groundwater nitrate contamination in June. It took place over two hours at Sam Boardman Elementary. 

No one from Gov. Kate Brown’s Office or from the state agencies tasked with ensuring clean water attended, despite invitations. Just one area legislator, Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, attended over video.

County leaders and people with contaminated wells expressed growing frustration at the lack of direct intervention from the state in public testimony

For nearly six months, a Morrow County Commissioner, a communicable disease specialist at the county’s public health department and volunteers from Oregon Rural Action have been going door-to-door testing tap water from private well users and setting up testing sites in town. They’ve also been providing under-the-sink reverse osmosis filters to people with high nitrate levels. 

Because of decades of excessive fertilizer applications on farms, manure from large livestock operations and wastewater from food processors being applied on fields, high levels of the compound nitrate have leaked into an aquifer that supplies water to people in Morrow and Umatilla Counties in east Oregon. 

Nitrate contamination risks are high for people with wells, many of whom are Latino and are low-income. The risks of consuming high levels of nitrate over long periods include miscarriage, thyroid disorders and some forms of cancer. 

Commissioner Jim Doherty, Ana Piñeyro of the health department and Oregon Rural Action volunteers have tested nearly 500 household taps so far, and 200 have come back with nitrate levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 parts per million. An additional 48 have tested above the state’s preferred safe drinking level limit of 7 parts per million. 

An estimated 4,500 domestic wells draw from the contaminated aquifer in Morrow and Umatilla counties, supplying water to roughly 12,000 people, according to the Oregon Health Authority. It is not yet known how many might be contaminated.

Demands for money and action

In both English and Spanish, residents expressed outrage over learning just this year that the state had known the groundwater was contaminated for decades and had let it get progressively worse, that they had been forced to pay for expensive filters and bottled water and that so little information had been shared publicly about the risks of consuming high levels of nitrate over long periods. 

An interpreter read testimony from Maria Elena Martinez, a mother of six, who suffered two miscarriages in recent years. She said she wondered, in hindsight, if the water she drank from wells in Boardman for 36 years had any role to play. Her tap water was recently tested and came back with a result of 26 parts per million of nitrate, more than double the safe legal limit. 

“No one had ever warned me about the danger,” she said. “Something must be done to protect our communities.”

Doherty called on the state to provide direct financial assistance to the county, which has spent about $500,000 on testing and filters since April. Doherty recently learned that Morrow and Umatilla counties will likely split about $800,000 in aid when the state’s Emergency Board meets next week, less than one-quarter of the $4 million he had requested. It’s supposed to last until June of 2023.

“We need their help and their resources,” he told the audience. “We need them to come back and pay you guys back. It’s your money that’s gone into this. That $500,000? It’s your money.” 

Kristin Anderson Ostrom, executive director of Oregon Rural Action, asked that the state provide public health assessments. 

Agency staff have met with Doherty, Piñeyro and Anderson Ostrom since the county declared its emergency, but the meetings haven’t resulted in much material help. Oregon’s Department of Human Services contributed several weeks worth of bottled water deliveries and two temporary staffers to help with distribution and outreach, but that has since ended.

State not in attendance

No one from a state agency attended Thursday’s meeting to hear calls directly from community members. 

Oregon Rural Action invited the directors of the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, as well as staff from those departments who have corresponded with the group about the water emergency during the last several months. All declined to attend.

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email that prior commitments prevented state employees from attending. 

Health authority spokesman Jonathan Modie said agency staff were invited Sept. 8 and did not have enough time to plan around prior commitments.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena and state Reps. Bobby Levy, R-Echo and Greg Smith, R-Heppner were also invited. Smith attended virtually from Salem, while Bentz, Hansell and Levy declined to attend due to previous commitments.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley, and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, sent aides. Merkley also recorded a video message in which he said he fought to get nearly $2 million for testing and research, but the money likely won’t be available until next year. It could not be used for filters because federal agencies are not allowed to use congressional money on supports for private wells. 

Representatives from the Port of Morrow and several large food processors were there. 

During the past two months, the companies have set up testing sites and have been working with the Morrow County Public Health Department on buying filters. 

But some residents were upset with the port and those food processors, who are responsible for some of the nitrate pollution, only now deciding to help with the drinking water.

“You got wolves looking after the sheep in this room,” Boardman resident Raymond Akers said. “They’re not trustworthy. They haven’t done nothing to earn your trust.” 

Residents feel deceived

Dionicio Hernandez is an agricultural and construction worker who has lived in Boardman for 15 years. For the past 10, Hernandez and his family have relied on a well they share with two other families. 

He recently learned it contained 40 parts per million of nitrate – four times the federal safe drinking limit. Hernandez said the news incensed his wife. 

“She felt really deceived that we were able to drink this and not know about this and to not be able to have the information or a way to protect our families, our children,” he said.

Hernandez said he eventually had to buy a $700 reverse-osmosis filter system. He took two days off of work to install it himself, because professional installation would have driven the total cost to more than $1,000. 

Paulo López, is helping to support his mother by buying water in 5-gallon jugs that cost about $28 per week. His mother has been out of work for five months. 

“Her income does not make ends meet,” he said.

Mayra Colin, who lives with her three sons and her parents in the house she grew up in, submitted testimony that was read by her father, Carlos Colin, about the multigenerational impact of the nitrate contamination.

“As a child I used to hear, ‘Don’t drink that water because it’s not good.’ “Those words I began to say to my own children – ‘Don’t drink that water son. It’s not good,’’ she said. “How sad that due to lack of attention, we have this concern and we feel fear.”

Questions remain

Attendees asked about whether water high in nitrate was safe for animals to drink. The Oregon Health Authority recommends animals not drink water with nitrate above 10 parts per million.

A few people asked what to do if the filters they received from the county or installed themselves aren’t bringing the nitrate levels down enough. Doherty said they’ve learned some systems have hard water that renders some of cheaper commercially available systems unusable. For this, the state is preparing with the emergency board money to buy $1,800 filters for some residents and pay for them to be installed.

Doherty said about 90% of the filters the county has provided are working and bringing nitrate levels below 10 parts per million. 

“The state is still weeks away from stepping into this,” he said. “We need you. We need you to walk across the street and talk to your neighbor. You need to talk to your friend or better yet, make a new damn friend, tell them to test their water.”

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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.