Port of Morrow's East Beach Facility in Boardman, Oregon on April 15, 2022.

Port of Morrow's East Beach Facility in Boardman, Oregon on April 15, 2022.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

The Morrow County Board of Commissioners agreed Wednesday to put $100,000 toward addressing its nitrate contamination emergency.

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The county declared an emergency last week after tests showed high nitrate levels in drinking water that came from private wells in northern Morrow County. Consuming water with high levels of nitrate can lead to health disorders like cancer and thyroid dysfunction.

Water testing began after environmental regulators found the Port of Morrow had disposed of nitrogen-rich wastewater on agricultural fields, though port officials noted they were responsible for less than 5% of nitrates in the area.

The money will go toward infrastructure for emergency water distribution centers, water quality tests and the hiring of a media representative to handle the issue.

Morrow County emergency manager Paul Gray told commissioners that the county had already opened a water distribution center in Boardman, but staff were largely relying on the emergency management budget and donations from Port of Morrow businesses to fund the early effort.

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Gray said he’d like to expand water distribution and testing to Irrigon, but he also needs help staffing the center in Boardman. He said the county has secured volunteers for the next two weeks, but he’s looking into hiring temporary workers.

The emergency money didn’t pass without some pushback.

Commissioner Don Russell said he wanted to see a more detailed budget proposal for the expenditure. He also said it didn’t provide a solution to the issue.

“If we’re really going to try and solve the problem, it’s not handing out water to people,” he said. “It’s putting in filtration systems.”

Commissioner Jim Doherty agreed with Russell that they needed a long-term solution, but added that “the ability to get clean, fresh water is paramount.”

“We’re concerned about the health of the folks that make this county move forward,” he said. “I do think it’s vital that we get the information out there (and) get the water to them.”

Russell voted against the emergency budget, but Doherty joined with Commissioner Melissa Lindsay to pass it.

Gray said he has no intention of distributing water to residents forever and his next goal is to install filters in all the homes affected by the nitrate contamination.

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