The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has revised the Port of Morrow’s groundwater contamination fine to $2.1 million after finding additional wastewater violations.
On Friday, the agency added $800,000 to the Port’s original $1.3 million fine for over-applying nitrogen-rich wastewater on agricultural fields in the Lower Umatilla Basin. The area is burdened with groundwater pollution and is the primary drinking water source for Morrow and Umatilla counties.
“When we issued the original penalty in January, we knew that there would be additional violations coming,” DEQ spokesperson Laura Gleim said. “We just didn’t yet have the documentation for those, and we didn’t want to wait several more months before issuing the original penalty and start moving towards getting them into compliance.”
Gleim said the Port violated its water quality permit an additional 626 times between the winter months of November 2020 to February 2022— making a total of 2,155 violations overall. The agency found the Port added 96 additional tons of excess nitrate to nearby agricultural fields for an estimated 261 tons total during that time. The fine is the second largest in the agency’s history.
Lisa Mittelsdorf, the Port’s executive director, said the company recognizes groundwater contamination has been a serious problem for decades. But she said it’s also a community problem that will require a community solution.
“By the DEQ’s own analysis, the Port’s industrial wastewater reuse program is responsible for less than 5% of the area’s nitrates,” she said in an emailed statement. “We will continue to work with DEQ to collaborate on a solution that will address what happens to industrial wastewater during winter months without shutting down the industries generating that wastewater.”
Last week, Morrow County declared a local state of emergency after private well testing showed high levels of nitrate contamination. The declaration will allow the county to take immediate action to protect drinking water, including distributing bottled water to those in need and bringing in resources from the state’s Office of Emergency Management. The county will set up water distribution trailers in Boardman so residents can fill large containers. It’s the first time an Oregon county has declared a state of emergency because of water quality issues.
In January, DEQ fined the Port for violating its wastewater permit more than 1,000 times that added approximately 165 tons of excess nitrate between 2018 and 2021. Later that month, the Port applied to appeal the fine claiming the violations were “unintentional” and had minor effects on human health and the environment.
Gleim said the agency and the Port are still in settlement talks.
“We’re also working with them on a permit modification and that’s the mechanism we have to get the necessary systems in place so that they are adequately managing their wastewater and preventing continuing violations and future contamination,” she said.
The Port has a water quality permit that allows it to collect nitrogen-rich wastewater from food processors, storage facilities, and data centers to use as irrigation on nearby farmland. Nitrogen is a beneficial plant nutrient when used in appropriate amounts. But excess amounts can lead to high levels of nitrate, which can seep into the soil and groundwater.
Drinking high levels of nitrate can cause health risks, including respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction and stomach or bladder cancer. It can also cause “blue baby syndrome,” which decreases the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, especially in infants drinking baby formula mixed with contaminated water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter can cause serious health effects.
Morrow County Commissioner Chair Jim Doherty said he was devastated to learn there is more nitrogen pollution in the groundwater than he previously thought.
“This is a real slap in the face to what we’re just getting set up to move forward with,” he said.
Doherty has been working with local organization Oregon Rural Action to test private wells for nitrate contamination. There are no Oregon regulations on private wells and owners are responsible for monitoring and maintenance. He’s found several homes outside of Boardman’s city limits that have no filters or had no idea of the nitrate contamination. Some of the tap water that he tested was nearly four to five times the federal safe drinking water limit.
Doherty said this prompted the county to start looking into other options to better address this issue. One of those could be stepping in and taking over the Port’s administrative control.
“I have no interest in having the county operate a Port, but I have a lot of interest in the health and welfare of the constituents,” he said. “We are tasked with that and if we have to go to that level, I will go to that level.”
DEQ’s Gleim said the Port is one of many sources contributing to nitrate contamination in Morrow and Umatilla counties. The state declared the region a groundwater management area more than 30 years ago, which created a committee to identify activities contributing to contamination.
The committee identified five pollution sources: irrigated agriculture, food processing wastewater, animal feeding operations like dairies and feedlots, sewage from septic tank systems and the U.S. Army Umatilla Chemical Depot’s bomb washout lagoons.
“The Port and businesses like it contribute less than 5% of the total nitrogen contamination in this area,” Gleim said. “So, what that tells us is that the Port alone cannot move the needle on reducing contamination to healthy levels. It’s going to take work and creative solutions from farmers, ranchers, homeowners, really anyone who uses water or land in this area.”
According to DEQ, fertilizer used on irrigated farmland accounts for approximately 70% of nitrates leaching into the groundwater. Concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, account for about 12%.
In April, DEQ issued a “pre-enforcement notice” to potato processor Lamb Weston’s Hermiston facility after finding the company also repeatedly overapplied excess wastewater to nearby farmland. The company violated its permit more than 75 times from 2016 through 2020 and added approximately 189 tons of excess nitrate to the groundwater.