After nearly two years of negotiations, the Port of Morrow has agreed to pay a fine of more than $2.4 million for repeated wastewater violations that contaminated the groundwater in Eastern Oregon.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s settlement with the Port of Morrow announced Tuesday will increase domestic well testing, provide more water treatment services and deliver clean drinking water to impacted residents in the region. The settlement also creates a compliance plan that includes reducing the amount of wastewater the Port can apply in nearby farmland during winter months and adding wastewater treatment capacity.
Port Executive Director Lisa Mittelsdorf said the settlement is fair and appropriate.
“We did take responsibility and we’re working on making improvements to our system so that we can reduce the nitrates in the water that’s leaving our facilities and going out on to agricultural land,” she said.
DEQ fined the Port in January 2022 for over-applying more than 200 tons of nitrogen-rich wastewater on agricultural fields in the Lower Umatilla Basin. It was the largest fine in DEQ’s history.
“I just want to make sure that as we take all of these millions of dollars, that we’re actually getting it to where we can solve problems,” Mittelsdorf said.
State agencies, including DEQ, have identified nitrate pollution as a problem for more than three decades in the Lower Umatilla Basin. Groundwater is the primary drinking water source for Morrow and Umatilla County residents. Many in the area who drink out of private wells have tested higher than the federal government’s limit of 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter, which can cause serious health effects.
Earlier this year, Gov. Tina Kotek pledged to address the nitrate issue. She allocated funds to the Oregon Health Authority for well testing and providing safe drinking water, as well as outreach and education.
“We have to reduce the practices that have caused groundwater in the Lower Umatilla Basin to have elevated levels of nitrate,” Kotek said. “While there is a lot of work ahead, the settlement agreement announced this week with the Port of Morrow is an important next step to developing intermediate and long-term solutions to the groundwater nitrate pollution.”
Most of the funds of the settlement are going toward more domestic well testing and providing safe drinking water through DEQ’s Supplemental Environmental Projects. According to DEQ, the policy allows for up to 80% of fines to go to projects that benefit community health and environment.
Through this program, the port has agreed to pay the Oregon Health Authority nearly $2 million over the next two years.
Aside from the DEQ’s Supplemental Environmental Project policy in place, the agency’s Harry Esteve said the compliance plan will create a schedule for the Port to increase its storage capacity and expand wastewater treatment facilities.
Last November, DEQ issued a permit modification to the port that includes specific wastewater application timelines during the winter months, adding more storage, additional monitoring and reporting to the agency.
He said the agency will continue to monitor those reports and carry out on-site inspections when needed.
“If they follow the compliance plan that is outlined in the settlement, then it’s our belief and understanding that they will then be meeting the confines of their permit and won’t be adding pollution to the groundwater,” Esteve said.
Advocates and community organizations like Oregon Rural Action said the settlement is a long overdue enforcement.
Director of community organizing Zaira Sanchez said she is hopeful the settlement will stop repeated wastewater violations and hold the port accountable. The money going to support more testing is important for impacted community members, she said.
“We appreciate that the DEQ recognizes that the increased volumes of untreated Port wastewater dumped near domestic wells poses a high risk to community health,” Sanchez told OPB.
But, she said, state agencies need to put in more effort. Sanchez still meets people in the region who are not aware of the nitrate pollution, and many who have not had their wells tested.
“There’s still a lack of clarity as to what to do, who to reach out to despite all of the resources that have been spent so far to inform the community, to identify the wells,” she said.
There is also a need for long term solutions that should involve input from impacted residents, Sanchez said.
The port is required to make its first settlement payment to OHA by the end of the year. After that, the port will provide the rest of the funds by installments until the final payment in June 2026.