Port of Morrow continues to apply excess nitrates on farmland, misses payment deadline

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Jan. 27, 2024 12:38 a.m. Updated: Jan. 27, 2024 6:49 p.m.

The port is set to pay the Oregon Health Authority $2 million over the next two years through the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Supplemental Environmental Projects. It completed the first payment of $1 million on Friday, almost a month after the payment’s due date.

The Port of Morrow violated its wastewater permit more than 270 times during the last two months of 2023, adding to the ongoing groundwater pollution crisis in the region, and failed to make a state agency payment on time.

According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Port of Morrow’s annual report for 2023 shows it violated its newly modified wastewater permit 273 times in November and December.


This comes after the port reached a settlement agreement with DEQ and agreed to a $2.4 million fine. The port was fined in January 2022 for over-applying more than 200 tons of nitrogen-rich wastewater on nearby agricultural fields. The fine was later increased in June.

Under the recently settled agreement, DEQ modified the port’s permit by reducing the amount of wastewater the port can apply to nearby farmland during the non-growing season from November to February. The port is also required to add additional wastewater treatment capacity.

Port of Morrow's East Beach Facility in Boardman, Oregon on April 15, 2022.

FILE: Port of Morrow's East Beach Facility in Boardman, Oregon on April 15, 2022.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

The port’s executive director, Lisa Mittelsdorf, said DEQ knew the port would continue to use wastewater for irrigation on nearby farmland during the winter months as “there is no alternative short of closing processing plants.”

“The Port’s more than $500 million project to remove nitrates from industrial wastewater and increase storage capacity won’t be fully operational until 2025,” she said in an email.

Morrow and Umatilla counties have been burdened with groundwater contamination that has steadily increased over the past three decades. State and local officials and nonprofit organizations have been working for years to come up with solutions to reduce the contamination with little success.

The Port of Morrow’s continued wastewater violations add to the ongoing search for short-, mid- and long-term solutions to nitrate pollution in the area.

DEQ’s eastern region public affairs specialist, Antony Vorobyov, said the agency expects the port will commit more violations, but environmental regulators will hold off on issuing penalties until March, after the end of the non-growing season in February.


“Those penalties have already been moved to our office of compliance and enforcement,” he said. “Rather than hit them with enforcements as they come, DEQ plans on writing a comprehensive enforcement package to Port of Morrow to cover those violations that occurred during that non-growing season.”

The port’s water quality permit allows it to collect nitrogen-rich wastewater from food processors, storage facilities and data centers to use as irrigation on nearby farmland. Nitrogen is a beneficial plant nutrient when used in appropriate amounts. But excess amounts can lead to high levels of nitrate, which can seep into the soil and groundwater.

Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for residents in Morrow and Umatilla counties. Many residents’ private wells have tested higher nitrate levels than the federal government’s limit of 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter, which can cause serious health effects.

The port’s Mittlesdorf said the port is seeking a $432 million federal loan that would allow it to increase wastewater storage capacity, install three anaerobic digesters for treatment, construct a secondary wastewater treatment plant, and increase land application capacity. Funding is anticipated by mid-summer, she said.

Vorobyov said the port’s digesters are operational but do not meet EPA’s nitrate levels for treating wastewater.

Late payment

Under the settlement reached last year, the Port of Morrow is set to pay the Oregon Health Authority nearly $2 million over the next two years through the DEQ’s Supplemental Environmental Projects. The policy allows for up to 80% of fines to go to projects that benefit community health and the environment.

The money would help the state agency increase well testing, install water treatment systems in homes in need, increase water deliveries and continue educating the local public about nitrate contamination and health impacts.

The first payment of nearly $1 million was due on Dec. 31.

According to the Port’s Mittelsdorf, the port received an invoice from OHA on Wednesday and the payment was completed on Friday. Mittelsdorf said the payment was delayed due to an accounting error on the port’s end.

Vorobyov said DEQ is evaluating whether to add additional penalties for missing the payment deadline.

Correction: The story has been updated to say the Port of Morrow’s first payment of nearly $1 million to OHA was completed on Friday.