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.

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Lamb Weston is a french fry plant located in Hermiston which produces around 750 million pounds of french fries annually that are shipped globally. It's one of the largest employers in the area.

Lamb Weston is a potato processor that has facilities in Boardman, pictured above, and Hermiston. The company's Hermiston facility produces around 750 million pounds of french fries annually that are then shipped globally. It's one of the largest employers in the area.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

Lamb Weston, which produces about 750 million pounds of french fries annually in Hermiston and is one of the area’s largest employers, recycles wastewater used during processing by applying it to nearby farms for irrigation. According to DEQ, the nitrate levels found downstream of the facility were up to seven times higher than the drinking water limit of 10 milliliters per liter set by the Environmental Protection Agency. DEQ discovered these violations after the facility filed to renew its permit and gave the facility 45 days to notify the agency of corrective actions.

A spokesperson with Lamb Weston said the company disagrees with the assertions and violations found by DEQ and will work with the agency to address the allegations. The company said it works closely with farm partners to track nitrate levels and minimize excess nitrates in area groundwater.

The area is already burdened with groundwater contamination, and groundwater is the primary drinking source for Morrow and Umatilla county residents. In 1990, the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Committee was formed to address the high levels of nitrate in the region and to identify practices that could reduce the levels below the federal drinking water standard.

Nitrate is naturally found in soil, water, and air, and when used appropriately it’s a fertilizer for crops such as potatoes and onions. But high levels of nitrate can have impacts on human health by causing respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction, and stomach or bladder cancer. It can also lead to “blue baby syndrome” which decreases the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, especially in infants drinking baby formula mixed with contaminated water.

The state’s notice to Lamb Weston is the second instance of excessive wastewater violations in the area this year. In January, DEQ fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for violating its wastewater permit more than a thousand times during 2018-2021 and adding approximately 165 tons of excess nitrogen to groundwater in the area. The agency belatedly noticed the port’s permit violations and issued a fine after the port applied to renew its wastewater permit. According to DEQ, Lamb Weston could also face a formal enforcement action that could lead to a fine.

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