Most well-water users in northeast Oregon counties still in the dark about toxic contamination

After launching a testing program seven months ago, the Oregon Health Authority has tested less than one-third of household wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties

By: - October 3, 2023 5:26 pm
Gov. Tina Kotek at the home of Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Boardman resident and Oregon Rural Action organizer, whose well water has nearly four times the safe drinking water limit for nitrate. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Gov. Tina Kotek at the home of Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Boardman resident and Oregon Rural Action organizer, whose well water has nearly four times the safe drinking water limit for nitrate. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

UPDATED at 9:38 a.m. with a comment from the governor. 

The Oregon Health Authority has failed to meet Gov. Tina Kotek’s expectation on well water testing for harmful contamination in northeast Oregon, rural advocates said.

Local organizers with the nonprofit environmental and social justice group Oregon Rural Action said the state’s testing campaign failed to meet Kotek’s expectations set in May that all wells would be tested by the end of September.

“The governor came out and looked people in the eye and said this would be dealt with, that testing would be done by Sept. 30,” said Kaleb Lay, an organizer for the group.

The group spearheaded a door-to-door testing campaign in 2022 in Morrow County following an emergency declaration from the county commission over contaminated wells. Several thousand households in Morrow and Umatilla counties rely on wells for water. 

While the nonprofit criticized the health authority, the agency declared its program a success. In a release Tuesday, it said that officials had tested 1,000 of the 3,300 wells used by households in the two counties for nitrates and that it had “met its goal of meaningfully offering water testing” of all residential wells. Gabriela Goldfarb, the health authority’s coordinator for the region, said the goal was to test or offer testing, not necessarily to ensure all wells were tested. 

“We had to follow – same as with COVID – the Swiss cheese approach. Layers and layers of efforts to try to get people aware of the problem and aware of the resources available to them,” she said. 

Kotek in a statement said well users in the two counties should rest assured the health authority will continue to offer testing to as many people as possible.

“My message to residents is this: The work will continue. If we missed you, or you weren’t home, you can still get your water tested. You will continue to see messages from OHA about testing, water delivery, and treatment. Call 211 to make an appointment to get your well tested today,” she said.

Of the 1,000 wells tested by the health authority, 235 have nitrate levels above EPA safe drinking limits, according to the health authority. They include more than 30% of household wells tested in Morrow County and about 20% of the household wells in Umatilla County, Goldfarb said.

The nitrate pollution stems in part from agricultural fertilizers and animal manure used on nearby farms. Nitrate-laced water is unsafe to drink above 10 milligrams per liter, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and can cause serious health effects if consumed over long periods. 

The health authority said that 1,200 of the wells identified for testing were inaccessible due to no trespassing signs or dogs or no one was home during repeated attempts to reach them. More than 1,000 other households either have not undertaken testing or samples of their water are currently being processed, according to Goldfarb. She expects up to 500 more results from water samples to come in over the next few weeks, bringing the state’s number of tested wells closer to 1,500 — or just under 50% — of all the domestic wells in the two counties. 

The agency will continue to try to reach as many people as possible, she said.

A voucher system

The Oregon Health Authority launched a well water testing campaign in March, offering free vouchers for containers that could be picked up at a local health authority’s office, filled with tap water and returned for testing. But to get a voucher, residents had to answer 25 questions online, drive to the office, collect the testing container for their water and return it.

Organizers with Oregon Rural Action told health authority officials that this was not effective in reaching residents, including many who speak Spanish as a first language, work long hours in the agriculture industry and have limited access to the internet. 

“We told them in March that we needed to go door to door, that the vouchers don’t work, that their materials are sending the wrong message,” Lay said. But it wasn’t until July that the health authority decided to send canvassers door to door to collect water samples and to help people fill out vouchers for testing. “Where’s the sense of urgency?” Lay said. 

As a next step, the health authority is supposed to provide free water treatment systems to residents with high nitrates. So far just 28 homes that have tested above the EPA’s safe limit have received them.

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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.

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