Think Out Loud

Morrow and Umatilla County residents still contending with contaminated water

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Feb. 27, 2023 5:25 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Feb. 27

A silver and gold faucet above a sink shows signs of corrosion near its base.

The faucet in Ana Maria Rodriguez's bathroom sink shows signs of corrosion, possibly due to nitrate pollution in Boardman, Ore., Jan. 15, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB


People in Morrow and Umatilla counties have faced nitrate pollution in their drinking water for decades. Last year Morrow County declared an emergency and began distributing clean water and filters, but that order ended in January. The Environmental Protection Agency sent a strongly worded letter to the state encouraging it to take more action against polluters, but the Oregon Health Authority still hasn’t tested any residential wells. We talk to Paulo Lopez and Ana Maria Rodriguez, both residents of Boardman, about what contamination actually means for them on a daily basis.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. People in Morrow and Umatilla Counties have faced nitrate pollution in their drinking water for more than three decades. This past summer, the EPA sent a strongly worded letter to state agencies encouraging them to take more action against polluters, but the Oregon Health Authority still hasn’t tested any residential wells. Meanwhile, Morrow County declared an emergency and began distributing clean water and filters last year. But that order ended in January.

We wanted to know what all of this has actually meant for people who live in the area, so we got in touch with two residents. Paulo Lopez is a mechanic in Boardman, Ana Maria Rodriguez is a community organizer there. We talked through an interpreter. I asked Ana Maria how high the nitrate levels are in her water.

Ana Maria Rodriguez: The level that they found was 38.1.

Miller:  Listeners should know that according to health authorities at the Environmental Protection Agency, levels over just 10 mg per liter can cause serious health effects. What went through your mind when you saw that it was about four times that?

Rodriguez: First of all, we’re just worried. So we worried that we would not be well, that our next generations would not be here with us and that authorities would not be able to help us.

Miller: How long had you and your family been using that water or drinking that water before you did this test?

Rodriguez: So when we first got the property, we were told by the family who originally lived there that the water wasn’t good. So we needed to use the filter.  So we had been using a filter and we always changed the filter. So I feel like, at some levels, maybe what we might have known, before most people, but we didn’t know it was the nitrates.

Miller: So when you moved in, you knew already not to drink the water, but you were still using it, say, for brushing your teeth?

Rodriguez: There was a low risk, and we knew of that low risk when we were brushing our teeth, but we didn’t know until now that that was not even appropriate to do. So here’s the question that I have, right? So we knew that the water wasn’t the best or good. But we also understand that the sewer where this water is coming from is being monitored by DEQ since the nineties. So I feel like where the lack is [is] a lack of education in letting us know what it was, and in my own language.

Miller:  As I mentioned before, Paulo Lopez is with us as well. Paulo, when did you and your family find out about the nitrates in your water?

Paulo Lopez: Between April and May [of last year].

Miller: And what did you find? What’s the level of your water?

Lopez: 40.9.

Miller: So also four times the level where government authorities say there can be serious health effects. Can you tell us how you’re using water these days? What do you use it for and what do you not use it for? I mean, the water is coming out of the tap?

Lopez: So that water, we still use it to shower, to brush our teeth, to wash our dishes, to wash our clothes. We do not use it for cooking.

Miller: Does that mean that you’re buying bottled water every week?

Lopez: Before April of last year, yeah, we were buying it weekly.

Miller: And then what happened in April?


Lopez: After we found out that the water was contaminated, then the government started giving water for the people whose waters were contaminated.

Miller: Is that still continuing? Are you still getting free bottled water?

Lopez: Yes, and if anything they gave us filters, last year to start putting in my property. But even with those filters my water is still at 10.9.

Miller: So even with the filter, it’s still just above what the EPA says can cause serious health effects. Paulo, we heard earlier from Ana Maria, that she doesn’t brush her teeth with this water now that she’s learned that that can be a problem. Does that concern you?

Lopez: Yeah, I am actually very, very worried. Because we shower with that water, and that water while we shower, can be getting in through our skin through our ears. I mean we could even be drinking a little bit of it by accident. And if anything I used to set up a pool for my son, until I found out how horrible this water is. So he was swimming in it.

Miller: Ana Maria, you mentioned that to you, one of the big issues is the lack of communication about this from authorities from the state or local level. What have you heard from the Department of Environmental Quality or the Oregon Health Authority or the county health department, from anyone, in terms of advice for how to proceed?

Rodriguez: I do know that they declared a state of emergency for a few months, and there was an answer. One of them, number one, was that they are now providing water for the families who have a level above ten. And then, number two… the thing is now, we are worried, because now that the state of emergency is gone, we’re just afraid of what’s going to happen.

Miller: Ana Maria, can you give us a sense for what this means just to do basic things. Say, making dinner tonight, what do you have to do to do that safely?

Rodriguez: So let’s put this in perspective, right? I have a filter but the filter is not enough to sustain and help out my entire family for things that we need to do daily. And I have an added cost, because of that. So it’s a little crazy. Now that the EPA has told us that we cannot be using this water to make… if I’m going to have vegetables for dinner, I can’t use this water to wash my dishes, wash the veggies, so it’s more like an extra step we’re taking. So now I will wash the vegetables with regular water, but then I use the filter water to rinse it out before I start using it for dinner to make sure any residue or of the regular running water is gone. And it’s the same for dishes. So it’s just an extra step that now that we have to take if I wanna have vegetables or be able to wash my dishes just to make dinner.

Miller: Local and state leaders in Oregon have known about this problem in Boardman, Morrow, and Umatilla Counties for more than 30 years now. And if anything, it seems that it’s only gotten worse in that time. What does that tell you?

Lopez: I personally believe nothing has been done. Absolutely nothing has been done to stop this contamination.

Miller: Ana Maria, what about you?

Rodriguez: I don’t think the leadership has been doing this in a conscious way, right? This is a big responsibility and I don’t think this information has been sent the correct way to Morrow County. Here in Morrow, we have a large Latino community, and I don’t think we’re aware of this. And if somebody is going to be a leader, they need to take that leadership and be conscious of the things that are affecting the community. It’s a big responsibility.

Miller: Ana Maria, if you were talking to the new Governor of Oregon, Tina Kotek about this issue, what would you tell her directly?

Rodriguez: What I would tell her is to give the opportunity and to start governing with the right foot, in the right way. And I know this is [of] large magnitude and I know there could be a lot of resistance. But we are demanding clean water, we’re demanding a plan and we want answers. And we have invited her to come and have this talk with her.

Miller: You said you’ve invited her, have you gotten any response?

Rodriguez: No. She has not responded yet, and our community has expressed that we want to talk. We want to share our experiences that we’ve had, or at least that I’ve had, the [last] few years that I’ve been living here and we will welcome her with open arms. Because we know that her job is a big one with a lot of demands. But what we want is to be heard, and we don’t want it to take another 30 years or more, which is what it’s taken [for] most of these authorities.

Miller: And Paulo Lopez, before we say goodbye, is there anything else you would like our listeners to know?

Lopez: So what I would like is to have the big leaders all come and stand here for us. What you would call the start of a fire, right? I mean, this is a big emergency and they’re not taking it as if it is. If there was a big fire, that would be an emergency. And so is this, this is a silent one, this is one that could be damaging us, it could be killing us in a silent way from the inside and we won’t even know it. So what I want is the leaders to treat this as the emergency that it is.

Miller: Paulo Lopez and Ana Maria Rodriguez, thank you very much for joining us.

Lopez: Gracias.

Rodriguez: Gracias.

Miller: Paulo Lopez is a mechanic in Boardman, Ana Maria Rodriguez is a community organizer there. We talked with the help of Interpreter, Lucia Cabrejos.

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