Northeast Oregonians ask governor to declare emergency over contaminated drinking water

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and two of three state elected officials from Morrow and Umatilla counties denied an audience with residents

By: - April 18, 2023 2:50 pm

Ana Maria Rodriguez uses a test strip to test water from Mike Pearson’s Boardman well outside the state Capitol in Salem on April 17, 2023. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

This week about a dozen Morrow County residents and community organizers drove 200 miles from northeast Oregon to Salem to do what their state elected officials had so far been unwilling to do: meet face-to-face to talk about the contaminated drinking water that hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of their neighbors continue to live with. 

They hoped to meet with Gov. Tina Kotek and ask her to declare a public health emergency to unleash resources for Morrow and Umatilla counties where a significant number of the wells that more than 4,500 households rely on could be contaminated. Many residents relying on wells are low-income and Latino. They also want the Legislature to allocate $10.2 million for testing and water deliveries to residents over the next two years. 

Kotek did not meet with the residents, and she did not declare an emergency. Instead, she sent her natural resources advisor, Geoff Huntington to meet with them. 

The group did meet with legislators on committees overseeing water and agriculture, however. “We are asking them to treat this like the emergency it is,” said Kristin Anderson Ostrom, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action. 

Morrow County leaders declared an emergency in July, after a testing campaign undertaken by the local public health authority and Oregon Rural Action found the wells of hundreds of mostly Latino and low-income households unsafe to drink after being contaminated for years with nitrates from farm fertilizers and manure and wastewater from area food processors and the Port of Morrow.

Though the contamination has existed for years, neither Gov. Kate Brown when she was in office nor Kotek have visited Morrow and Umatilla counties to talk about the water contamination with residents. Both administrations have sent staff, instead.

Area residents want to know the governor takes their concerns seriously.

Kotek has plans to visit the region, according to press secretary Anca Matica, though no date has been set. In an April 7 news release, Kotek said her staff has been meeting regularly with federal environmental officials as well as health, social services and environmental officials in Oregon to discuss the problem. It noted that the Oregon Health Authority had designated a project leader to oversee those discussions. 

But she did not announce any new actions.

Since late March, the health authority has offered testing vouchers to residents but residents say the system involves too much red tape and that authorities are moving too slowly. 

Matica said the governor has included $3 million in her recommended budget for outreach and water testing in the region, less than one-third of what residents and organizers want. Outside the Capitol on Monday, residents and organizers with Oregon Rural Action tried to drive their point home by displaying jars of water from several Boardman homes with high nitrate levels. 

They were labeled with the well owner’s name and the nitrate levels in the water – way over the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

“We’re tired of poisoning ourselves and our children with this water that we’ve been drinking for 30 years,” resident Mike Brandt said. His water contains three times the safe levels determined by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

Two northeast Oregon Reps. Bobby Levy, R-Echo in Umatilla County, and Greg Smith, R-Heppner in Morrow County, did not meet with the group. Smith sent an aide and Levy told Oregon Rural Action in an email she was too busy and did not feel she should get involved. 

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena in Umatilla County, met with the group as did House speaker Dan Rayfield and leaders from the House Committee On Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources and Water – Reps. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton and Mark Owens, R-Crane. 

Hansell said he would bring the issue up again with Kotek. Helm and Owens have included more than $1 million in a proposed drought package for water testing and a study of getting well users on to a municipal water system in Morrow and Umatilla counties.

After driving home, the group plans on Tuesday to go door-to-door with the Morrow County Public Health Authority to collect and test more household tap water for nitrate contamination.


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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.