Port of Morrow agrees to new state regulations limiting nitrogen pollution

The Port of Morrow will invest more than $150 million in treating wastewater to reduce nitrogen levels and to limit where and when it is applied to farmland

By: - December 5, 2022 1:15 pm
The Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon.

The Port of Morrow is surrounded by four industrial parks with data processing centers, an ethanol plant and food processors. It produces tons of nitrogen-rich water that it sends out to area farms to use on crops, but over the years, too much nitrogen has been spread, contributing to groundwater contamination. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Port of Morrow has agreed to new conditions for disposing of its nitrogen-loaded wastewater, accepting changes mandated by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality following $2.1 million in total fines issued this year. 

The agency fined the port in January and June for allowing more than 260 excess tons of nitrogen to be spread across area farmland over the last five years atop a contaminated aquifer. An investigation by the Capital Chronicle found the port had violated its permit for much of the last 15 years, allowing at least 730 tons of excess nitrogen onto the land. Nitrogen pollution from the port, area food processors and irrigated agriculture — the single largest contributor to area nitrogen pollution — have compromised the drinking water of hundreds of mostly low-income and Latino families in Morrow County who rely on wells drawing from the contaminated aquifer. 

Under its new permit, port officials said Friday they will invest at least $150 million in a system to treat most wastewater by 2023, lowering the overall nitrogen levels. They will also spread the wastewater across 1,600 more acres to reduce the overall concentration of nitrogen-loaded water applied to the land, and the port will no longer spread wastewater during the winter, when there are fewer crops to absorb it. 

The port will take out loans and pursue state and federal funding to pay for the treatment system. Officials expect to repay the loans from fees paid by the port’s industrial water users, according to its director, Lisa Mittelsdorf.

In a news release, Mittelsdorf said the port’s five commissioners decided not to appeal DEQ’s new limitations on the wastewater permit despite, what she characterized as, concerns over aggressive deadlines and disagreements over calculations of nitrogen levels in the wastewater.

“Even though the port is responsible for approximately 3.5% of the nitrates found in the Lower Umatilla Groundwater Management Basin, our responsibility as environmental stewards is to do everything possible to ensure industrial wastewater remains a community asset,” Mittelsdorf wrote.  

The nitrogen in the port’s wastewater comes from fertilizers and crops processed by food companies operating at its industrial parks in Boardman in northeast Oregon. The port recycles the nitrogen-loaded wastewater by sending it to area farms for reuse on crops. But excess nitrogen that cannot be absorbed by crops and the land turns into nitrates, which pollute groundwater that is used for drinking. The consumption of water with high in nitrates over long periods can lead to stomach, bladder and intestinal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute, as well as miscarriages. 

In Morrow County, nitrate pollution has left hundreds of private wells-users with water unsafe to drink, according to recent testing done by the county’s Public Health Department, County Commissioner Jim Doherty and the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action. The results led the county in June to declare a drinking water emergency.

The largest source of area nitrogen pollution is from fertilizer used for agriculture as well as manure from large livestock farms, known as confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs. DEQ can only enforce limits on water discharge permit holders, such as the port, CAFOs and food processors, such as the Lamb Weston factory in Hermiston.

Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, most farmers are not considered “point source polluters” and their fertilizer application and nitrate pollution are largely unregulated by the state or federal government.

Problems with groundwater nitrate pollution have persisted for at least the last 30 years in Morrow and Umatilla Counties, according to DEQ, and have gotten worse despites attempts from the state and surrounding community to get polluters to voluntarily reduce their fertilizer application.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She 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.

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