Potato processor, Oregon regulators reach settlement over wastewater violations

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
March 25, 2024 8:57 p.m.

An Eastern Oregon potato processing plant has reached an agreement with state regulators over repeated wastewater violations that added more than 220 tons of excess groundwater pollution in a region already burdened with contamination.

It’s been nearly two years since the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued Lamb Weston’s Hermiston facility a “pre-enforcement notice,” which found the company violated its permit 75 times and added about 189 tons of excess nitrates to nearby farmland from 2016 through 2020. In September, the agency found the facility violated its wastewater permit 90 times from 2015 through 2021, dumping more than 220 tons of excess nitrates to nearby farmland.


On Feb. 14, DEQ reached a settlement with Lamb Weston that will require the company to evaluate ways to reduce the amount of wastewater being applied to nearby farmland, and to conduct soil sampling and additional well monitoring. The company will also have to pay a $143,400 fine. Lamb Weston has the option to direct 80% of that penalty to what’s called a “Supplemental Environmental Project,” which would benefit the local community and environment.

Lamb Weston is a french fry plant located in Hermiston which produces around 750 million pounds of french fries annually that are shipped globally. It's one of the largest employers in the area.

FILE - Lamb Weston's potato processing facility in Hermiston, Ore., April 15, 2022. The company reached a $143,400 settlement with Oregon regulators over repeated wastewater violations.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

Lamb Weston, which produces about 750 million pounds of french fries annually in Hermiston, has a water quality permit that allows it to use the nitrogen-rich wastewater from its processing plant to irrigate and fertilize crops on nearby farms.

Lamb Weston spokesperson Shelby Stoolman said in an emailed statement that the facility works cooperatively with DEQ to ensure its operations comply with its permits.

“This has included improvements to our water treatment facility to reduce nitrogen content in our process water and steps to reduce water use and the amount of process water ultimately land-applied as irrigation,” she said.


Nitrates from local food processors used on nearby farmland have been a contributor to the ongoing groundwater contamination in Morrow and Umatilla counties.

For more than 30 years, state and local agencies, as well as nonprofit organizations and a volunteer committee, have been working on ways to reduce the amount of nitrate pollution and on providing clean and safe drinking water to affected residents.

State and local domestic well testing have found nitrate levels exceeding the federal government standard by more than seven times the limit.

Drinking high levels of nitrates can cause health issues such as respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction, and stomach or bladder cancer.

Last week, during a DEQ commission meeting, agency Director Leah Feldon said the agency regulates at least six entities in the region. She said DEQ is working on making all wastewater permits consistent, but will also consider the size of each entity and how much wastewater volume it takes in.

“What we’re doing, more broadly, with anyone who does land application under a DEQ permit is we’re renewing all of these permits and we’re building in conditions that prohibit winter application of wastewater,” she said. “That is currently being worked on as well with Lamb Weston in a permit renewal.”

In November, the agency reached a $2.4 million agreement with the Port of Morrow over repeated wastewater violations — the largest fine in DEQ’s history. The settlement required the port to invest in an increase in domestic well testing, more wastewater treatment services and water deliveries for affected residents. The settlement also limited the amount of wastewater the port can apply to nearby farmland during the winter months.

According to DEQ, Lamb Weston’s wastewater permit expired in 2009. The agency said it is working on a new permit that will undergo a public review process.

“It’s absolutely no secret we’ve had very few resources and staff to be able to work on groundwater issues over the years and at times, there’s even been real concern in terms of just our ability to keep monitoring laboratory staff and to be able to keep up that trend [analysis] work,” Feldon said. “We have always expressed to the Legislature how important it is that we can keep up that trend work and be able to sample and report on those monitors.”

According to DEQ’s Antony Vorobyov, the company has proposed a supplemental environmental project ahead of deadline, and the agency is currently reviewing that proposal.