Port of Morrow appeals $1.3 million fine for groundwater contamination

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Jan. 31, 2022 11:57 p.m.

The port disputes the massive fine, claiming its wastewater violations were “unintentional” and had minor effects on human health and the environment.

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.

Earlier this month, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Port of Morrow, an industrial park outside of Boardman, for overapplying wastewater containing nitrogen to agriculture fields and failing to monitor the resulting nitrate contamination.


According to DEQ, the port violated its water quality permit more than a thousand times in four years. The port exceeded its nitrogen limits by approximately 165 tons during that time, further contaminating groundwater that is used for drinking water in an area that DEQ says is already burdened with pollution.

In the appeal filed last week, the port disputed its fine, claiming the violations were “unintentional” and were a result of things that were out of the port’s control. The port said it believed it had enough land available to absorb the excess nitrate but there was “an unexpected combination of less acreage available and unusually high winter precipitation” that forced the port to exceed its nitrate limits.


Despite the overapplication of nitrogen in these areas, the port claims it had no “adverse effect” on groundwater nitrate levels and therefore had minor effects on human health and the environment.

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.

A barge being loaded with grain at the Port of Morrow for shipping to Asia.


But the port also admits it was not monitoring and recording nitrate levels in plant tissue as required in its water quality permit because there was no standardized method for monitoring and “DEQ provided no useful guidance,” the appeal letter states.

Nitrogen is a beneficial plant nutrient when used in appropriate amounts. When overapplied, nitrogen can lead to high levels of nitrate which is already sound in the soil, water, and air. It then leaks into the soil and into the groundwater.

Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for residents in Morrow and Umatilla counties, and drinking high levels of nitrate can cause health problems.

DEQ and the Port of Morrow will now schedule an informal meeting to come to an agreement. The port says it should not be held liable for the full $1.29 million fine. If a settlement cannot be reached, DEQ will request a hearing before a judge.

The port previously violated its water quality permit in November 2015. It received a $279,000 fine from DEQ for exceeding its nitrogen application limits. DEQ and the port settled the case with a $129,000 fine and a corrective action schedule that required the port to add additional acreage to absorb the extra nitrogen in its wastewater.