EPA could stop drinking water crisis and dangerous mega-dairy

July 21, 2023 5:30 am
A large dairy is proposed for northeast Oregon.

A large dairy is proposed for northeast Oregon where residents have been grappling with groundwater contaminated with nitrates. (Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Factory farming is contributing to a public health crisis in northeast Oregon, threatening thousands of rural Oregonians with no end in sight. As a proposed new mega-dairy threatens additional pollution, Oregon regulators are failing to act. 

But the Environmental Protection Agency could change the story.

Groundwater is the sole source of drinking water for approximately 46,000 residents in the Lower Umatilla Basin, covering parts of Morrow and Umatilla counties. For over 30 years, this aquifer has been dangerously contaminated with nitrates that increase the risk of many serious health problems when ingested – from birth defects and “blue-baby syndrome” to thyroid disease and cancer. Recent private well testing conducted by Morrow County and Oregon Rural Action has revealed contamination as high as five times the federal safety standard.

The unchecked growth of industrial livestock operations is causing a large and growing share of the pollution. Polluters by design, confined animal feeding operations like mega-dairies and cattle feedlots produce large quantities of waste. In the Lower Umatilla Basin, livestock generate millions of gallons of waste — approximately 516 times that of the area’s human population. Much of that waste is then disposed of on local fields, where its nitrogen mineralizes into harmful nitrates and seeps into groundwater. Nitrates from this waste also find their way into groundwater by seeping out of manure storage areas and from industrial food processing facilities, such as the Tillamook cheese processing plant at the Port of Morrow. The port is home to several large food processing companies which produce nitrogen rich water that gets disposed, once again, by dumping it on local fields. 

Since 1990, the state of Oregon and local authorities have been aware of the region’s dangerous pollution, designating parts of northern Umatilla and Morrow counties as a groundwater management area. But for decades this has failed to translate into effective solutions. Now, regulators are entertaining a proposal that would make matters worse.

Oregon regulators are inexplicably considering approving a new Easterday mega-dairy to confine nearly 30,000 cattle in the Lower Umatilla Basin. Even without a single cow on site, the pending operation has amassed dozens of wastewater permit violations, repeatedly exceeding groundwater nitrate limits. State regulators have not issued a dime in penalties for these violations.

Mega-dairies and food processors have repeatedly proven themselves to be powerful polluters — Easterday would be more of the same. Take the Port of Morrow and Lost Valley mega-dairy, which collectively violated their wastewater permits over 1,600 times in just the past 15 years, leading to untold amounts of nitrates reaching groundwater.

The port is home to Tillamook’s Columbia River Processing Plant, an enormous facility built to industrialize the region’s dairy production and encourage mega-dairies like Lost Valley and Threemile Canyon Farms. Threemile Canyon, one of the nation’s largest dairies with approximately 70,000 cattle, has a checkered pollution record of its own.

Meanwhile, by the state’s own admission, the drinking water crisis is only getting worse. A 2020 report acknowledged that “nitrate concentrations are going up more than they are going down,” and in 2022, over 40 percent of tested wells in Morrow County exceeded the safe drinking water standard. An unknown number of private wells remain untested.

This deteriorating crisis comes as legislators prove unwilling to address pollution from industrial animal operations, and state regulators ignore ongoing contamination. Oregon legislators have failed to pass a proposed moratorium on new and expanding operations each year since 2019, and state regulators regularly let operators with egregious water pollution violations get away with no more than a slap on the wrist

With resistance to a ban in Oregon, Food & Water Watch petitioned EPA for federal intervention under the Safe Drinking Water Act in January 2020. EPA has a duty to protect public health where Oregon leaders and regulators will not, and federal law gives the agency the explicit authority to step in during emergencies like this one.

EPA action could turn the tide on this festering nitrate contamination. EPA can make polluters pay for their contribution to the crisis by, for example, funding filtration systems and alternative sources of water for impacted residents. And EPA can stop permits for all new and expanding CAFOs in the area including the Easterday mega-dairy. EPA has a powerful set of tools it can deploy that the state cannot or will not use on its own.

This June, we met with the EPA to repeat our demand for federal intervention and ensure impacted residents could share their experiences. Oregon officials are failing to protect public health in the Lower Umatilla Basin — new and expanding industrial animal operations would add insult to injury. 



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Tyler Lobdell
Tyler Lobdell

Tyler Lobdell is a staff attorney at the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch and author of the January 2020 Safe Drinking Water Act petition to the Environmental Protection Agency. He is based in Boise, Idaho.