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Nitrates in Groundwater

DEQ increases Port of Morrow fine to $2.1 million for additional nitrate violations in Eastern Oregon

State of Oregon Newsroom - June 17, 2022 

Boardman, OR­The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a revised penalty to the Port of Morrow for additional violations involving overapplication of wastewater containing nitrogen to agricultural fields in the Lower Umatilla Basin, an area with longstanding groundwater contamination. DEQ issued the original penalty in January. The additional violations increase the fine by $800,000, from $1.3 million to $2.1 million. 

The Port of Morrow is one of many sources contributing to nitrate contamination in northern Morrow and Umatilla counties­an area known as the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area.


Morrow County declares emergency over high nitrate levels in wells

By: Monica Samayoa - June 10, 2022 

Morrow County declared a local state of emergency on Thursday after private well testing showed high levels of nitrate contamination. 

During a special meeting, Morrow County Commissioners voted 3-0 in favor of the measure, which will allow the county to take immediate action to protect drinking water. It?s the first time an Oregon county has declared a state of emergency because of water quality issues. 

The county will start distributing bottled water in the next few days and will be setting up water distribution trailers in Boardman so residents can fill large containers.


Morrow County declares emergency over groundwater nitrate pollution

By: Alex Baumhardt – June 9, 2022 

In an unprecedented action, the Morrow County Commission Thursday declared a local state of emergency over groundwater nitrate pollution that has compromised drinking water for many in the region. 

Commissioners Jim Doherty, Melissa Lindsay and Don Russell voted to make the declaration – in effect until the end of the year – establishing the commission to act as an “emergency management agency.” This gives commissioners the authority to establish procedures to “prevent, minimize and respond” to the water pollution issue, and to coordinate with state and federal agencies for emergency financial assistance.


Troubled by inaction, Morrow County commissioner makes safe water a top issue

SPECIAL REPORT: Now, Umatilla County joins in effort to test where residents draw well water from the same contaminated aquifer

By Alex Baumhardt - June 7, 2022 

The first time Jim Doherty visited Boardman?s West Glen neighborhood to test people?s tap water, he had six plastic bottles from a lab in Umatilla and communicated with residents using broken Spanglish from his years working on farms and ranches. 

Most of the homes in the mostly Latino neighborhood in northeast Oregon are prefabricated, on large lots, with long gravel driveways where cars and kids? toys are parked. The area is surrounded by farmland. The homeowners draw their water from wells tapping an aquifer increasingly contaminated with nitrates. 

Nitrate Well Water Program

Oregon State Univesity- 2022

What is nitrate?

State What is nitrate? Nitrate is a nitrogen-containing compound (NO3) found in soil and water. Nitrogen is a nutrient needed for plant growth. About 78% of the air that we breathe is composed of nitrogen gas. While nitrate is the most common groundwater and drinking water contaminant. Nitrate in the groundwater at levels below 2 parts per million may be considered to be naturally occurring "background concentrations". Nitrate can come from a variety of sources related to human activity, including animal and human waste, feedlots, fertilizers and septic systems. rarely intervened and never stopped the port as it dumped hundreds of tons of excess nitrogen over a critical groundwater area


Water contamination worsened as DEQ went easy on Port of Morrow

SPECIAL REPORT: State officials rarely intervened and never stopped the port as it dumped hundreds of tons of excess nitrogen over a critical groundwater area

By: Alex Baumhardt, Cole Sinanian and Jael Calloway - May 19, 2022

The state's chief environmental agency knowingly let the Port of Morrow pollute year after year, contributing to drinking water contamination for thousands, an investigation by the Capital Chronicle showed.

To protect jobs, the state Department of Environmental Quality addressed the industrial pollution with deals instead of enforcement.

Agency officials accepted the port's plans over the years that promised correction but were seldom followed.


Morrow County Commissioner Doherty says nitrates in Boardman water a threat to life

By: Phil Wright, East Oregonian - May 10, 2022

BOARDMAN - Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty is making the water pollution in his county a top priority.

"The nitrate issue in the Columbia Basin has always haunted me," he said. When he won election to the county board five years ago, he said he crafted a list of goals, and the nitrate problem was on the list.

"Shamefully that is where the ambition ended relative to the work," he said. "But in this occupation, the best time to have done something was years ago, the next best time is now."


Port of Morrow pollutes water for years with little state action: SPECIAL REPORT: Drinking water of thousands increasingly impaired by excessive nitrogen dumps

By: Alex Baumhardt, Cole Sinanian and Jael Calloway - May 7, 2022

Guadalupe Martinez points to a 24-pack of bottled water by her kitchen sink with just a few bottles left, one of thousands she's brought home over the last 18 years.

"Ever since we've been living here, we've been buying water," she said.

The 54-year-old grandmother knows she can't drink the water that comes out of her tap. It would make her and her family sick.

She is not alone

[...] Officials at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality have known nitrate pollution in area groundwater is putting the health of largely low-income, Latino and immigrant families at risk. An investigation by the Capital Chronicle established that little has been done about the port's contribution to area water contamination besides modest fines and engaging in agreements that the port in turn violated.

For years, port officials illegally pumped millions of gallons of wastewater containing nitrogen in excess of what DEQ deemed safe. They piped it out from their industrial complex in Boardman to nearby farms, which used it on their cropland. The nitrogen-rich water is free — a vital commodity for farmers who grow onions, potatoes, corn and more. Once applied to the farmland, nitrogen transforms into nitrate that in turn can make drinking water unsafe.


Groundwater pollution puts drinking water at risk in Eastern Oregon counties

By: Monica Samayoa - May 5, 2022

More than 30 years after nitrate contamination was recognized as a problem, it's still making well water unsafe to drink in Morrow and Umatilla counties.

Silvia Hernandez has been living in a small home near the outskirts of Boardman for the past ten years with her husband and 8-year-old child. Since her home is near the city limits, she has no access to public water services - just a private well for water.

When she moved in, her realtor told her the well water was safe to drink straight from the faucet, but she never felt comfortable drinking it that way.

And it's a good thing she didn't.


Lamb Weston's Hermiston Plant found to have polluted groundwater with tons of excess nitrate

By: Alex Baumhardt - April 19, 2022

Lamb Weston's French fry production plant in Hermiston has been discharging too much nitrate-loaded water onto area farms, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The wastewater flowing from the plant has contaminated the groundwater, causing nitrate levels in some nearby wells to measure four to seven times the safe limit set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to DEQ.

The state agency on March 31 warned the company that it faced enforcement action for contaminating the groundwater. It was the second such notice issued to the company in recent months.


Hermiston french fry plant violated its permit and polluted groundwater, state finds Oregon Public Broadcasting

By: Monica Samayoa - April 19, 2022

Oregon environmental regulators have issued a "pre-enforcement notice" to a potato processing plant in Hermiston after finding the company repeatedly overapplied excess wastewater to nearby farmland and contaminated the groundwater in the area.

Last month, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found Lamb Weston violated its water pollution permit 75 times from 2016 through 2020 and added approximately 189 tons of excess nitrate to the groundwater in an area where nitrate contamination already exceeds the federal limit for safe drinking water.


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

By: Alex Baumhardt - April 15, 2022

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.


Port of Morrow appeals $1.3 million fine for groundwater contamination

By: Monica Samayoa (OPB) - January 31, 2022

The Port of Morrow has filed an appeal to contest a nearly $1.3 million fine it received from state regulators for repeated wastewater violations that contaminated groundwater in the area.


Port of Morrow fined $1.3 million for harmful nitrate levels in drinking water

By: Allison Frost (OPB) / Broadcast: January, 18, 2022

Many residents in the counties surrounding the Port of Morrow in Boardman get their drinking water from groundwater. The port has a wastewater permit for the industrial park it operates but Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality found it violated the permit, allowing more than 165 tons of excess nitrate into the area over the last four years, contaminating groundwater.

The DEQ fined the port $1.3 million, significantly more than previous fines for similar contamination. OPB Science and Environment reporter Monica Samayoa joins us to explain the significance of the nitrate contamination, the DEQ fine and what happens from here.


DEQ fines Port of Morrow $1.3 million for 'reckless' pumping of nitrate-laced water on farms

By: Lynne Terry and Alex Baumhardt - January 11, 2022

State officials said Tuesday that the Port of Morrow in northeast Oregon for years has spread excessive amounts of nitrate-laced wastewater on area farmlands in a way that contaminates groundwater and was "reckless" in doing so.

The state Department of Environmental Quality made that finding in announcing one of its largest pollution fines ever, levying a $1.3 million penalty against the port, a public entity headquartered in Boardman.

"DEQ issued this penalty because groundwater adversely affected by the Port of Morrow's wintertime land application of nitrogen-containing wastewater is used as drinking water by residents" in the area, the DEQ said in its notice delivered to the port on Monday.


Cheese in the desert: Why mega-dairies are piping water onto Oregon's shrub-steppe

By: Dawn Stover, Columbia Insight - May 12, 2021

An environmental coalition is lobbying for a moratorium on mega-dairies, which have proliferated in water-challenged area of Northeast Oregon


The Lower Umatilla Basin is also a state-designated Groundwater Management Area, because of nitrate contamination typically associated with agricultural wastes and fertilizers.


EPA petition asks for emergency action on tainted drinking water in Eastern Oregon

By: Tracy Loew - January 16, 2020

Oregon regulators have failed for three decades to curb nitrate contamination in drinking water sources near Eastern Oregon's large dairies and feedlots.

Now, eight state and national health and environment groups are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and take emergency action.

The groups filed a Safe Drinking Water Act petition with the EPA Thursday, saying the contamination presents "an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the residents of the Lower Umatilla Basin in Oregon."

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