State fines Hermiston potato processing plant for groundwater contamination

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Sept. 27, 2022 11:19 p.m.

Environmental regulators say Lamb Weston violated its wastewater permit 90 times and dumped more than 200 tons of nitrate pollution into the soil

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued a $127,800 fine Tuesday to a Hermiston potato processing plant for repeated wastewater violations that contaminated the groundwater in nearby communities.

Lamb Weston’s Hermiston facility, which produces about 750 million pounds of french fries annually, violated its wastewater permit 90 times from 2015 through 2021 and added approximately 224 tons of excess nitrate to nearby farmland, according to DEQ.

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 processing plant located in Hermiston that produces around 750 million pounds of french fries annually for global distribution. It's one of the largest employers in the area.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

The potato processor has a water quality permit that allows it to use the nitrogen-rich wastewater from its processing plant to irrigate and fertilize crops on nearby farms.

DEQ also cited the facility for a separate spill of almost 25,000 gallons of industrial wastewater into soil near the processing plant.

Morrow and Umatilla counties are already burdened with groundwater contamination, and groundwater is the primary drinking source for county residents.

In April, DEQ notified Lamb Weston that the agency had discovered dozens of violations in the process of renewing the company’s water pollution permit.

Lamb Weston spokesperson Shelby Stoolman said the company takes environmental compliance seriously and is carefully reviewing the information it received from DEQ.

The company has 20 days after receiving the penalty to appeal the fine. The agency is still working with Lamb Weston on renewing its permit.

Decades of effort to clean up nitrate pollution

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.


But after more than 30 years, the problem persists. In fact, DEQ data shows nitrate levels have increased by 55% since 1997, according to a 2020 report. About 30% of the wells tested in the area exceeded the federal limit for safe drinking water.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter can cause serious health effects. DEQ found current concentrations of nitrate in the area measured seven times higher than the federal limit.

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 cause 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.

Nitrate contamination is a bigger problem for residents with private wells. There are no Oregon regulations for private wells, and owners are responsible for monitoring and maintaining their wells.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Laura Gleim said Lamb Weston is one of many sources contributing to nitrate contamination in the area. According to DEQ data, 70% of estimated nitrates that leach into the groundwater in the region come from irrigated agriculture.

“Farming, ranching, people’s septic systems, all of these things contribute to nitrate contamination in the groundwater,” she said. “It’s prevalent in this area, but this is also an issue in areas around the state and around the country, particularly in agricultural areas and areas where communities are using a lot of septic systems for their wastewater disposal.”

Pie chart from the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Local Action Plan that shows the estimate of nitrogen leached to the groundwater.

A pie chart from the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Local Action Plan shows the sources of nitrogen leaching into the groundwater.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality / Oregon Department of Enviromental Quality

Gleim said there are six facilities in Eastern Oregon near Hermiston and Boardman, including the Port of Morrow and Lamb Weston, that are actively applying wastewater to nearby farmland. Each has a permit with the agency, and DEQ is in the process of reassessing these permits to determine whether the facilities are complying and if any adjustments are needed to protect nearby groundwater.

“We want to reduce nitrate contamination in this area,” she said. “And if we’re going to move the needle, it’s not just about writing and enforcing permits for these few facilities, it’s much bigger and more complex than that.”

Earlier this year, DEQ fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for violating its wastewater permit more than a thousand times from 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.

Gleim said the reason why Lamb Weston’s penalty is lower than the Port of Morrow’s is that the Port had previous wastewater violations and Lamb Weston did not.

In June, Morrow County declared a local state of emergency after private well water testing in Boardman and Irrigon showed high levels of nitrate contamination. From the 70 wells that were tested by nonprofit Oregon Rural Action and the local health department, almost all were above the federal safe drinking water limit and dozens were five times that limit. The organization also found that many Spanish-speaking residents were unaware of nitrate contamination and did not regularly monitor their private wells.

In July, the Environmental Protection Agency urged state officials to take more action in the area and to stop relying on voluntary practices to address the issue. Both DEQ and the Oregon Department of Agriculture told OPB they would continue to enforce their agency’s rules but their authority is limited.