In Short

Public comment sought on water permit for Port of Morrow after million-dollar violations

By: - April 15, 2022 1:57 pm

An alternative energy facility at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon. The Port was fined $1.3 million for repeatedly pumping too much nitrate-laced water onto farmland. (Sam Beebe/Flickr)

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is asking the public to weigh in on a revised water permit for the Port of Morrow, after it violated its existing permit more than 1,100 times.

From 2018 to 2021, the state’s second largest port dumped wastewater on farmland containing 165 tons more nitrate than allowed.

In January, the DEQ fined the port nearly $1.3 million for the violations. The port is appealing. 

Nitrate is a compound in fertilizer used in farming. Many crops like potatoes and wheat are processed at the Port of Morrow before being shipped by river, rail and road. That processing puts remnants of fertilizer into the wastewater. 

The port’s water permit requires treatment of the wastewater before it is goes to nearby farms for irrigation. It is essentially a wastewater recycling program, but when that water is too high in nitrate from the fertilizer, the excess moves into the groundwater and can contaminate aquifers that local well users and water utilities depend on. The port produces about 3.6 billion gallons of wastewater annually. 

Nitrate is difficult and expensive to remove from wells, requiring filters that cost thousands of dollars. If water with high levels of nitrate is consumed over long periods, it can lead to increased risk of colon and stomach cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Such pollution can also be harmful to babies and pregnant women, causing oxygen deprivation that can lead to miscarriages and methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome,” according to the Oregon Health Authority. 

Comments regarding the revised water permit can be emailed to Patty Isaak, DEQ’s water quality permit coordinator at [email protected]. All comments are due by 5 p.m. Friday, May 20.

After that round of comments, the agency will propose an updated permit and possibly allow comment on that.

The Port’s discharge violations are the result of accumulating more water than it can store as it’s expanded over the years. 

The revised permit would allow the port to add about 1,600 acres to its discharge program.

“The additional acreage spreads out the wastewater nutrients onto more crop fields, reducing likelihood of unused nitrate leaching to groundwater if properly managed,” the DEQ said in its permit summary.

The revisions would require the port to conduct more soil and groundwater quality monitoring, reduce discharges in nongrowing seasons and devise a plan to clean existing groundwater contamination. 

The port is currently building the first of three anaerobic digesters that will help treat some of the water-borne nitrate turning it to ammonia which is easier for crops to take up and could lead to less nitrate leaching into the groundwater. 

Morrow County is located in an area called the Lower Umatilla Basin. It has been deemed a Groundwater Management Area by the DEQ since the early 1990s due to high levels of nitrate in the water.

This story has been updated to show that the wastewater is given to farms, not sold to 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. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.