Think Out Loud

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

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Jan. 18, 2022 1 p.m. Updated: Jan. 25, 2022 11:49 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 18

A barge being loaded at the Port of Morrow. The grain will be shipped to Asia, where coal could also be shipped. The Army Corp of Engineers are conducting an environmental assessment of a plan to barge coal 200 miles west to load it onto ships.

In this file photo, a barge is being loaded at the Port of Morrow.



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.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Last week, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Port of Morrow, which is near Boardman on the Columbia River, $1.3 million for wastewater violations. The Port contaminated the groundwater in surrounding counties. Monica Samayoa is a science and environment reporter for OPB and she joins us with the details. Monica, what exactly did the Port of Morrow do?

Monica Samayoa: The Port of Morrow was fined by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] for putting too much wastewater onto agricultural fields and failing to monitor the resulting contamination. The Port has a permit to put nitrogen rich wastewater from food processing plants onto nearby fields which can be a good thing for fertilizing crops. But if you overdo it you can end up polluting the groundwater with nitrates. According to DEQ the Port violated its water quality permit more than 1,000 times and dumped about 165 tons of excess nitrogen in a span of four years onto these fields.

Miller: More than 1,000 times. What are the biggest industries that are discharging wastewater containing these nitrates?

Samayoa: There are several industries that are responsible for nitrogen and nitrate contamination. But three industries really take the lead according to DEQ. And those are food processing plants like potatoes, onions and cheese plants, animal feeding farms like dairy farms and irrigated agriculture which is what the Port does. The reason why we know this is because the groundwater in the areas already is contaminated with high levels of nitrate. This is where residents get their drinking water and why DEQ was concerned about the excess amount of pollution going onto these fields and getting into the groundwater.

Miller: Why is the Port responsible for industrial wastewater in the first place?

Samayoa: So the Port owns the land where all these industries operate. So it’s like an industrial landlord. This is one of the perks to give their tenants, saying ‘hey, we’re here and we can take care of this wastewater for you, so you don’t have to worry about it’. And so the Port then takes this wastewater and uses it for irrigation on nearby farms.

Miller: But they are required to actually pay attention to what they’re doing. And this is what DEQ is saying that they haven’t done over and over and over. What’s at stake here, what are the effects of high levels of nitrate on human health?

Samayoa: It could pose serious health risks, like respiratory infections, certain stomach or bladder cancers or thyroid dysfunctions. But it poses a serious health risk for pregnant people and infants. And one of those health risks is um called the blue baby syndrome and that could happen to infants when they drink baby formula mixed with contaminated water. What happens when they do is that their skin turns blue because there isn’t enough oxygen in their blood. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends not drinking water if nitrate levels are above 10 milligrams per liter. Now, DEQ says it found that the groundwater in some areas where the Port dumps the excess wastewater was seven times higher than the limit.

Dave Miller: You actually talked to one of the owners of a contaminated well in the area. And he’s not just any resident, he is the Chair of the Morrow County Commission Jim Doherty. What did you hear from him?

Samayoa: Yeah, I spoke with Morrow County Commission Chair Jim Doherty who is a private well owner and what I heard was frustration. So there are no state regulations for private wells. So private well owners need to monitor the drinking water in their own wells and that’s exactly what he has had to do. And even doing that, he still can’t drink water, like he can’t drink his own water from the well. So Doherty knows that this is not all coming from one industry or coming from the Port. He says it’s a double edged sword. The Port is bringing in jobs and strengthening the economy, but in doing that, it’s harming the environment. Here’s what he had to say.


Jim Doherty: And now we’re at a critical juncture where if we don’t slow down and look at what we’re doing and look at what we’re doing with our own environment and in our own area here, we’re not going to be sustainable.

Samayoa: Doherty tells me it’s not too late to make changes to improve the groundwater. But you know, one of the biggest questions that needs to be answered is where the excess levels of nitrogen are coming from and why.

Dave Miller: You noted this, but it’s worth digging more into this. It seems like political leaders like the chair of the county commission are in a tricky situation given that the industries that are creating this pollution in the first place, they seem really central to the entire area’s economy. Just how important are they?

Samayoa: They’re super important. The Port is the second largest in the state after the Port of Portland. And it’s home to these major food processing plants. And all of that combined generates thousands of jobs and contributes billions of dollars to the economy. And that’s what the port is there for. It’s an economic engine.

Dave Miller: You noted in your reporting that this wasn’t even the first time that the state fined the Port for groundwater contamination. What happened the first time back in 2015?

Samayoa: Essentially the same thing. The port was fined almost $300,000 for exceeding their nitrogen limits in its permit. But DEQ and the port reached a settlement for about $130,000 along with a corrective action plan that included adding additional field acreage to absorb that extra nitrogen at the time.

Dave Miller: How do the port respond when you ask them about these violations?

Samayoa: The port has not agreed to speak with me about the fine or what we should expect from them. In a press release statement, the ports executive director Ryan Neal said they’ve been working cooperatively with DEQ on developing long term solutions for everyone. So when I reached out to get more details, I was told [that] since this is a pending issue that they cannot comment any further. But the Ports President and Police Chief in Boardman was quoted in the Salem Reporter that they’re taking this issue pretty seriously and they acknowledge that they have some work to do.

Miller: You know, I’m thinking about the fact that this is the exact same infraction, a much bigger fine, but the same thing that state regulators said was a problem six years ago. I mean it is the fact that the port is still contaminating groundwater. Is that an indictment of state oversight?

Samayoa: Okay. You know that’s a good question and I did ask DEQ Why it took so long for them to notice this was happening. Four years is a long time for nothing to pop up or anyone to notice. They said this was discovered because the porch was looking to modify its current water quality permit. And so when DEW reviewed their files they saw these violations. But I mentioned that they violated their permit more than 1,100 times. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of times to violate your permits. So their response was they do what they can and they also have limited resources and they just can’t be everywhere all the time. So right now they’re working with the Port again and are setting an irrigation schedule that will now prohibit the Port from irrigating during those winter months since that’s the time of year where crops aren’t using as much nitrate as they would during the summer.

Miller: Is $1.3 million a large fine for DEQ?

Samayoa: It is one of the largest they’ve given. And in their calculations for fines, DEQ did apply additional fees because this was a repeated violation. So their fine was higher because they were negligent and reckless, according to DEQ. And the agency also said the port intentionally applied nitrogen in excess during the winter months. And you know that made the fine that much higher.

Miller: Because as you know that’s a time when it’s less likely to be sucked up by plants so more likely to end up in people’s wells. What are you going to be paying attention to most going forward?

Samayoa: Everything. I’m looking to see what the port will do. If they will appeal the fines, they will have to do so within 20 days of receiving the violation. So from there a few different scenarios could happen. But you know, this has been an issue in the area for three decades. My questions, I have several - why is this still happening? Is there another company or industry that may also be contributing to this problem and we don’t know about it yet. And I ask that because there’s a chart that DEQ provided that shows who the biggest contaminators are. Irrigated ag is responsible for almost 70%. So is all of that coming from the Port or are others involved? As I said I have a lot of questions. I’m going to keep trying to contact the port to see if they will speak with me about it. So yeah hopefully I’ll get some more information as I keep a close eye on this.

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