Science & Environment

Outcry over nitrate pollution spurs changes to Eastern Oregon groundwater committee

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Nov. 5, 2022 1:21 a.m.

State appoints new committee members and the board begins writing restructuring bylaws as drinking water problems continue to worsen

A committee tasked with reducing groundwater pollution in Morrow and Umatilla counties is restructuring to address mounting concerns over hazardous nitrate contamination in local drinking water.

On Friday, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality appointed new members for the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area committee and helped launch an effort to restructure how the group operates.

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Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty is showing Silvia Hernandez her well water test results for nitrates which exceeded the federal safe drinking water limits by nearly five times on April 15, 2022.

Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty shows Silvia Hernandez test results that say her well water has nitrate levels that exceed the federal safe drinking water limits by nearly five times on April 15, 2022.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

The committee is charged with figuring out what’s causing high levels of nitrate in the groundwater and developing recommendations for reducing them. Groundwater is the primary drinking water source for the two counties, and it is being polluted by a variety of sources, including 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 committee reforms come after more than three decades of unsuccessful pollution reduction efforts. Nitrate contamination in the area’s groundwater has actually gotten worse since the committee was formed in 1990.

This summer, Morrow County declared an emergency in response to contaminated drinking water and distributed bottled water to affected residents. Environmental groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency for help, and the agency head sent a letter in July threatening to intervene if the state of Oregon didn’t take action against nitrate polluters.

On Friday, DEQ added new member categories for the general public and tribal members to better represent community concerns. Oregon State University associate professor Salini Sasidharan is the new chair for the committee, which will now create bylaws to add organizational structure as the board looks for ways to reduce nitrate contamination in the region.

“We’re gonna look back in a very short time and say that we kicked the football off and started the game today,” Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said during the meeting. “We’ve only been practicing for the last 30 years. Now we’re going to do it for real.”

Oregon Rural Action’s Kristin Anderson Ostrom is a newly appointed committee member representing the general public. She’s been testing residents’ private drinking water wells in the area and found more than two hundred of them tested above the federal standards. Some tested up to five times higher than the federal limit for safe drinking water. Anderson Ostrom said she is happy the committee is reorganizing and moving forward, but she feels that there is still a lack of urgency.

“We’ve got people who wake up every morning and are drinking the water out of their faucet and not knowing whether the water is safe or not,” she said. “So there is a real urgency to begin to deal with this long-term problem that’s lacking and we hope that community members, now that they have a seat at the table, can help remind the rest of the stakeholders in the committee.”

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Anderson Ostrom said she would like for the other vacant general public seat to be filled by a person whose well water is contaminated to create that sense of urgency to find a solution sooner rather than later.

Annie Philpott says her families private well needs to be replaced but do not have the money to replace it. The Philpott's were hoping to refinancr their home but did not qualify after their well system tested too high for nitrates.

Annie Philpott says her families private well needs to be replaced but do not have the money to replace it. The Philpott's were hoping to refinancr their home but did not qualify after their well system tested too high for nitrates.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

She also said the committee should focus on public education and outreach because many community members “are in the dark” about the high levels of nitrate in the area.

DEQ’s Eastern Oregon Regional Solutions liaison Randy Jones, who supports the committee, said this is the first time the committee has restructured itself in more than three decades.

“Over time, there’s not been a lot of actionable work that’s come out of the committee, and nitrate concentrations have basically been on the rise,” he said.

Nitrate levels have steadily increased in the region since at least 1997, but the committee can only provide best practices or voluntary measures as solutions.

At their meeting on Friday, committee members vowed to restructure and find solutions that will provide safe drinking water to community members, but it was not clear whether they would advocate for regulatory requirements.

Jones said many things led to the structural changes. Earlier this year, the agency fined the Port of Morrow and potato processor Lamb Weston for wastewater pollution that added hundreds of tons of nitrate contamination to the groundwater. That led to public outcry and a call from Anderson Ostrom’s group for the state to step in and take charge. Jones said the changes are also a response to environmental groups filing a petition in 2020 to the EPA asking the federal agency to take emergency action and provide clean drinking water.

“Additionally, there was a drinking water emergency declaration for the first time, declared by Morrow County,” he said. “So, these were all signals that it was time to take a really hard look at the committee and how it was organized.”

Drinking high levels of nitrate can lead to 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 EPA, nitrate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter can cause serious health problems.

During Friday’s meeting, DEQ said it recently sampled 30 private wells the agency monitors and found 11 of them exceeded the federal safe drinking water limits.

The committee will meet again next year to continue to creating bylaws and new sub-committee groups to better address the contamination problem.

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How Oregon Dungeness crab make the journey from sea to table.
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