Gov. Tina Kotek is ramping up pressure on state government to solve a three-decade nitrate crisis in Eastern Oregon’s Lower Umatilla Basin, but during a tour of the region Wednesday, she stopped short of declaring a state of emergency.
Gov. Kotek spent much of Wednesday with community leaders and residents in Morrow County to learn more about the groundwater pollution in the region as part of her One Oregon Tour. She’s the highest elected state official to directly address nitrate contamination.
“It’s a new day. It has taken a while to get here,” Kotek said to a small group of Latino leaders in Hermiston. “We have to reduce the pollutants going into the watershed. There’s a lot of effort going on to make sure we have a long-term solution. Our job is to hold people accountable.”
Leaders and residents from the region asked the governor for more education and outreach about the health effects of drinking contaminated tap water, more free private well testing and creating a community group to hold state agencies accountable.
Kotek told locals that she was pushing for more resources. She included $6.2 million in her proposed budget to address nitrate contamination in the region, with $3 million to pay for outreach, water treatment systems and domestic well testing and $2 million to provide drinking water to households that need it. It also includes $1.6 million to add staff at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to support a regional committee tasked with finding solutions to reduce the contamination.
Additionally, Kotek said the state hired a new epidemiologist this week to gather information on people in the region who are suffering from illnesses that could be connected to drinking nitrate-contaminated water.
Drinking high levels of nitrates can lead to serious health effects, including respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction and stomach or bladder cancer.
Residents throughout the day were eager to suggest their own solutions to help tackle the nitrate crisis.
During one of the day’s meetings with Kotek, Hermiston City Councilor Maria Duron suggested there should be Latino representation on a regional groundwater committee.
“I think it would be important to have someone at the seat that can also help them, assist them with the messaging or any information that can be distributed to the Spanish-speaking community,” Duron said.
Residents and local organization Oregon Rural Action, which also guided a tour for Kotek in Boardman, have called on the governor to declare a state of emergency. But the governor stopped short of declaring one Wednesday, saying she’s focused on meeting the needs for the community and making sure resources are available to them.
“I’m focused on making sure we do the work on the ground,” she said. “If someone says to me a couple of weeks from now, ‘That would help us,’ I certainly want to do that. I have not been given that information that declaring a state of emergency would change anything we’re doing.”
The governor’s visit to Morrow County marks the first time the state’s highest elected official has directly addressed nitrate contamination that’s burdened Morrow and Umatilla counties for more than 30 years. Groundwater is the main source of drinking water in the region, and data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality show nitrate levels have steadily increased over the last three decades. Recent private well testing from local organizations show some well owners’ tap water tested four to five times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standard of 10 milligrams per liter.
Despite a regional groundwater committee tasked with finding ways to reduce nitrates, with oversight from DEQ, the problem persists. Residents are asking for clean water and accountability from polluters.
“We are trying to understand what’s needed, and if what we’re asking for is not enough, we will be back,” Kotek said. “The first goal is to make sure that people have safe water.”
Boardman tour and town hall
Organizers from Oregon Rural Action guided Kotek on a small tour through Boardman. The first stop was at a site near the Port of Morrow, where a recent leak allowed thousands of gallons of wastewater to contaminate the site. The Port last year was fined more than $2 million for repeatedly violating its wastewater permit, after it dumped more than 250 tons of wastewater in nearby farmland. The port and DEQ are currently in settlement talks to determine potential fines.
Oregon Rural Action has conducted door-to-door testing for more than a year on nearly 700 wells in the region. About 40% of wells in Morrow County have tested unsafe, with some wells testing more than five times the federal limit, according to the group’s research.
Oregon Rural Action organizer Nella Parks said the state didn’t need to make a binary choice.
“We just don’t want it to turn into: We can either have industry, we can either have agriculture or we can have jobs or we can have safe water,” Parks said.
During the tour through Boardman, the group went to the home of ORA organizer Ana Maria Rodriguez, one of the wells that has tested well above the federal limit. It was the same trip U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley made when he visited Morrow County in January.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also tracking nitrates in Eastern Oregon. In March, the EPA’s regional administrator warned the federal agency could step in if the state does not quickly address the region’s groundwater contamination.
Residents are growing restless, too. At the end of the governor’s tour, Kotek attended a community meeting where residents seemed ready to move past talks of water filters.
They shared stories about thyroid issues, kidney failures and premature deaths, which residents said seemed connected to the water they have been drinking for years. They also said the services they receive from the state are inconsistent: drinking water deliveries don’t always arrive on time or cover all of their families needs, and sometimes drinking water shows up on their doorsteps before they receive warnings that their wells are testing high for nitrates.
“All the money and all of the time and all the effort that we’ve spent for filters and everything for clean water, it hasn’t really worked out,” resident Carlos Jimenez said.
Throughout the meeting, Kotek reassured the crowd that addressing their crisis was one of her top priorities, and she would not forget them.
“Thank you for showing up and thank you for fighting,” she said. “And as your governor, I care and we are going to make progress.”
The audience gave her a short round of applause at the end of the meeting as her team whisked her out of the building in a matter of seconds. Morrow County is the 10th county Kotek has visited as part of her One Oregon Tour.