DEQ fines Lamb Weston in Hermiston $127,000 for nitrogen pollution

The agency said the food manufacturer allowed hundreds of tons of excess nitrogen to be spread atop farms over a critical groundwater area during a six-year period

By: - September 27, 2022 3:57 pm

A Lamb Weston potato plant in Boardman at the Port of Morrow. The company is facing a fine for unpermitted nitrogen discharges over a contaminated aquifer at its Hermiston plant nearby. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

A Lamb Weston plant in Hermiston allowed hundreds of tons of excess nitrogen to be spread on two farms, potentially adding pollution to an already critically contaminated aquifer, according to a penalty issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. 

On Tuesday, the agency fined the Idaho-based potato products manufacturer $127,800 for 90 violations of its wastewater discharge permit at its French fry factory in northeast Oregon. The violations occurred between 2015 and 2021, and resulted in more than 220 tons of unpermitted nitrogen being released. The company has 20 days to respond to DEQ. 

Lamb Weston did not respond to requests from the Capital Chronicle for comment by Tuesday afternoon.

DEQ has fined Lamb Weston’s Hermiston plant before but this is the biggest fine against it at any one time. It follows a fine of $2.1 against the nearby Port of Morrow for over applying nitrogen-rich wastewater and polluting groundwater. 

The wastewater discharge permit allows the plant to release some of its nitrogen-rich wastewater onto farmland in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area. The basin has been in critical condition since at least the early 1990s due to contamination from nitrogen and nitrates, largely from irrigation from farms that leads to nitrogen in fertilizer contaminating the groundwater. Manure from industrial farms have also contaminated the groundwater as has wastewater released by area food processors and the Port of Morrow. Nitrates have ended up in private domestic wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties at unsafe levels. 

Lamb Weston uses water to wash and process potato products, and that water, mixed with nitrogen from the fertilizer, is applied to crops in the field to enrich the soil. 

But when too much nitrogen is applied to the land, crops don’t absorb it and it seeps into the soil, becoming nitrates. Nitrate is very difficult to remove because it binds with water. 

It is unsafe to drink water high in nitrates over long periods, according to the Oregon Health Authority, the National Institutes for Health and the World Health Organization. Risks include miscarriage, thyroid disorders and some forms of cancer. 

A campaign to test 500 taps from well users in Morrow County this year found that 200 tested above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 parts per million. Nearly 50 more tested above the state’s preferred limit of 7 parts per million. There are an estimated 4,500 domestic wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties supplying water to 12,000 people, including many who are Latino and low income, according to the state health authority and environmental quality department.

Failure to report

According to the enforcement issued by DEQ, Lamb Weston’s decision to allow unpermitted nitrogen onto farmland above the aquifer was “negligent” and the company “failed to take reasonable care to avoid the foreseeable risk of committing the violation.”

Laura Gleim, a spokesperson for DEQ, said in an email that the agency did not discover the years of violations until it reviewed the Hermiston facility’s annual reports while it was preparing to issue a permit renewal this year.

 “Lamb Weston did not notify DEQ of its permit violations, even though it is required to do so,” she said.

Lamb Weston’s wastewater discharge permit expired in 2009, but DEQ allows permit holders to continue discharges under an “administrative extension,” sometimes for years, until it conducts a full review for renewal. More than half of the wastewater discharge permits DEQ has issued in the state are on administrative extension, according to Gleim.

Releasing too much nitrogen atop a contaminated basin is a Class I violation under state law, which means it carries a “high probability for significant, direct environmental harm.” 

Lamb Weston’s Hermiston plant has received six penalties from DEQ since 2001 for violating its wastewater discharge permit for a total of $30,346, according to the agency’s enforcement database. Tuesday’s penalty is the first for violating nitrogen limits. The others were for issues with reporting or making unauthorized changes/modifications to its permit. 

DEQ ordered the facility, Lamb Weston’s second largest in the Columbia River Basin, to develop and implement a plan to ensure it complies with its wastewater permit and to develop a plan to study and lower nitrate levels in the aquifer beneath the farms that receive its waste water. 

DEQ also fined the Port of Morrow nearly $1.3 million in January for allowing 165 tons of excess nitrogen onto area fields over a period of three years. In June, more violations were identified, leading DEQ to raise the fine to $2.1 million. 

An investigation by the Capital Chronicle found that the port violated its permit numerous times during the last 15 years, allowing at least 628 tons of excess nitrogen out atop the contaminated aquifer. DEQ issued few financial penalties and never suspended the port’s water discharge permit. 

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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.