Oregon Health Authority slow to help thousands in northeast Oregon with polluted drinking water

The federal Environmental Protection Agency remains ready to intervene should the state fail to ensure safe drinking water in northeast Oregon

By: - January 17, 2023 5:45 am
People in Boardman who cannot drink their water meet with Sen. Merkley

Morrow County residents meet with Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley about nitrate contamination in their water. They hold up signs showing the nitrate levels in their water. A report from the Secretary of State’s Office found Oregon agencies in charge of ensuring water quality and quantity are understaffed, underfunded and lack coordination and planning for the future, compromising the state’s water security. (Courtesy of Oregon Rural Action)

Three years ago, eight environmental groups asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to do something about nitrate contamination in drinking water in northeast Oregon. 

In a Jan. 16, 2020 petition, they said that for more than 30 years the state had failed to stop nitrate pollution from farm fertilizers, animal manure and industrial wastewater from polluting an aquifer that thousands of people in Morrow and Umatilla counties depend on for drinking water. 

“Oregon officials have effectively abandoned their responsibility to protect Oregon’s citizens,” they wrote in the 32-page document. 

Today, little has changed for these residents, many of whom are low-income and Latino. Hundreds have contaminated wells with water unsafe to drink while the lead state agency assigned to fixing the issue, the Oregon Health Authority, has been slow to act. 

André Ourso, manager for health protection at the health authority, and Gabriela Goldfarb, environmental public health manager at the agency, are in charge of its response in Morrow County. But the health authority has not launched a large-scale public information campaign, tested well water in the area or distributed any filters to households to clean their water, agency spokesperson Jonathan Modie said. 

And though a Morrow County commissioner led a local testing campaign, those results have not been reported to the EPA, and the commissioner has been ousted.

Following conversations with the EPA about the 2020 petition, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Department of Environmental Quality, the health authority and the governor’s office submitted an action plan to the agency. The goal was to show how the state would ensure affected residents received clean drinking water. 

In that plan, the state agencies laid out a timeline for securing funding and for beginning a well-testing campaign as early as summer 2022. 

And in the months following, enforcement against polluters in the state ramped up. In January 2022, DEQ fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for violating its wastewater permit by dumping nitrogen-laden water onto area fields, increasing that to $2.1 million in June. The same month Morrow County declared an emergency over the issue. 

EPA stepped in again, telling the state in a letter to meet the “minimum components for an adequate response plan.” 

They included identifying all residences that obtain drinking water from wells drawing from the contaminated aquifer; contacting all affected people; providing free water testing for all residents who rely on wells; and supplying free safe water to residents when tests showed nitrate levels above EPA’s limit until filters were made available.

When consumed over long periods, high levels of nitrates can lead to stomach, bladder and intestinal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute, as well as miscarriages. 

By year’s end, the health authority had not fulfilled all of these requirements.

The EPA remains involved, Bill Dunbar, a regional spokesman, told the Capital Chronicle in an email. It has required quarterly reports and meetings from Oregon’s environmental, agriculture and public health agencies on the situation. 

“EPA remains ready to intervene should state efforts fall short,” Dunbar wrote.

The EPA has not set a deadline for state action.


Local action

Following the drinking water emergency in Morrow County, an emergency response office within the Oregon Department of Human Services helped provide bottled water to residents through community drop sites and deliveries.

That assistance ended in August, but DHS has continued to send $6,000 per month to Morrow County to pay for bottled water and deliveries, according to Sara Campos, an agency spokesperson. 

A business coalition largely made up of corporations affiliated with the Port of Morrow has reimbursed the county for the costs of buying and installing 140 water filters, said Debbie Radie, vice president of operations for Boardman Foods and a member of the coalition.

The bottom line is that the water in our region is good for plants and profits, but not people. Large scale agriculture is the engine for these counties, and we need food and we need jobs, but we also need clean water.

– Kristin Anderson Ostrom, executive director, Oregon Rural Action

But follow-up water testing showed that at some houses, the devices did not filter out enough nitrates to make the water safe. 

In September, the Legislative Emergency Board allocated more than $880,000 to the state health authority for water testing, deliveries and filters, which has not happened yet. 

But locals have acted. To date, county officials and the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action have tested tap water at 512 households that rely on wells. About 40% have nitrate levels above the EPA’s safe drinking water limit, they said. In Umatilla County, a testing campaign of tap water at 137 households showed that about 25% had levels above EPA’s limit. 

Joseph Fiumara, Umatilla County public health director, said testing has not been robust due to limited funds, but he expects new state and federal aid to expand Umatilla County’s testing campaign. The two counties have an estimated 4,500 domestic wells, according to the health authority. That means only about 14% have been tested. 

Kristin Anderson Ostrom, executive director of Oregon Rural Action, has been among those leading the local outreach and testing efforts.

“The bottom line is that the water in our region is good for plants and profits, but not people,” she said. “Large scale agriculture is the engine for these counties, and we need food and we need jobs, but we also need clean water.”

Former Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty
Former Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Jim Doherty, the county commissioner who led local efforts to test wells last year, was recalled in November, along with county Commissioner Melissa Lindsay. The petitioners claimed the two lacked transparency, violated open meeting laws, were financially irresponsible and did not cooperate with other public and private agencies. 

Doherty suspects his campaign for safe drinking water, which brought attention to powerful interests involved in the nitrate pollution, might have contributed to his ouster. 

I thought when all the testing came to light, everybody would just be bending over to help and assist in this. I was pretty taken aback when the callousness and coldness happened,” he said. “A lot of people kind of bowed at the altar of the almighty dollar relative to folks that needed help and that’s tough for me.”

What’s next

On Dec. 31, Morrow County’s emergency declaration officially expired. Ourso and Goldfarb of the health authority continue to meet with local leaders and Oregon Rural Action to develop a testing and filter distribution plan for all well users in Morrow and Umatilla counties. They have contracted a company to provide the filters and that company is working on an installation plan with local plumbers and a testing and filter campaign are expected to roll out over the next few months Modie, the health authority spokesperson, said. The last meeting between local officials and the health authority took place Jan. 4, and no timeline was given for rollout, according to Anderson Ostrom.

Beyond the county commission, local and state leaders have been largely absent. Last July, Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, fielded questions from residents in a virtual town hall in Morrow County. 

On Jan. 15, the state’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, became the first elected official from any level of government above the county commission to go to Morrow County and meet people with nitrate-polluted water. Merkley’s visit followed his announcement of $1.7 million in federal funding to help pay for testing in the region for well users and to help develop a plan for connecting them to a municipal or community water system to treat their water. The state needs a plan to seek money from an EPA drinking water fund or from other funding sources.

Merkley meets with residents in Morrow County who cannot drink their water
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley meets with residents in Morrow County who cannot drink their water. Residents hold up signs with their nitrate levels written on them. The EPA safe drinking water limit is 10 parts per million. (Rafael Romero, Oregon Rural Action)

The Department of Human Services office tasked with coordinating safe drinking water deliveries in Morrow County will continue to do so through March 30, and potentially beyond if the county needs additional help, Campos, the agency spokesperson said.

The EPA, which has met quarterly with state officials, will do so again in February. Officials involved in these meetings include Jeff KenKnight, a regional water enforcement officer; André Ourso, a health authority administrator; Lauren Henderson, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Wym Matthews, who oversees the large dairy wastewater program at the agriculture department; and the interim-director of the environmental quality department, Leah Feldon. An official from the governor’s office, Courtney Crowell, is also taking part. 

Gov. Tina Kotek’s office declined an interview request about the water contamination problems in northeast Oregon, but emailed a statement she issued in October 2022 calling the situation “completely unacceptable.”

I will push everyone involved — the port, local government and our federal delegation — to come together, with the state as the lead convener, to find long-term solutions to address this pollution,” she said in that statement. 

Dunbar from the EPA said the next few meetings with the state will be among the most informative. 

“We anticipate having a clearer picture about the scope of the problem, whether state plans will meet the goals we’ve laid out, and whether EPA may need to exercise its authorities to compel further action,” he told the Capital Chronicle.


Previous EPA intervention

In 2009, environmental groups petitioned the agency to do something about nitrate pollution in the Lower Yakima Valley in south central Washington. Over a period of three years, EPA investigated the sources of the contamination and concluded that several industrial dairies were to blame. EPA required them to provide a permanent alternative source of drinking water for households affected within a mile of each dairy. The dairies paid for reverse osmosis filtration systems and paid for the installations. 

The petitioners in Oregon had hoped the EPA would do the same in Morrow and Umatilla counties. The parallels between the two situations are many. A disproportionate number of the people affected in both areas are low-income and Latino, and both areas are dominated by the agriculture industry. 

Bill Dunbar, a regional spokesperson for EPA, said the agency is investigating the primary sources of nitrate contamination in Morrow and Umatilla counties. In northeast Oregon, nitrate flows into the groundwater from a combination of farms, large dairies, industrial food processors and the Port of Morrow. Getting to the sources, and then holding them accountable, has proven difficult, Dunbar said.


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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.