Port of Morrow Fails to Notify DEQ About Wastewater Leak

Water pools above the wastewater pipeline at the Port of Morrow. The photo was taken in November, two months before the port responded to the leak following inquiry from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo courtesy of Mike Pearson)

By Alex Baumhardt

The Port of Morrow, the state’s second-largest port, faces a new violation over contamination in eastern Oregon that may have been going on for some time.

The violation is linked to a spill of port wastewater in an area reeling from years of water contamination from the port and other sources. The Department of Environmental Quality, which failed for years to act, is now negotiating a settlement with the port over previous violations.

DEQ appears to have been slow to act again, waiting weeks until two people complained about the spill.

The agency, which regulates the port’s wastewater system, asked the port about the leak in mid-January after a second area resident complained to the agency that they’d heard about a leak or seen pooling water around the port’s main pipeline. DEQ officials asked port officials the day it received the second complaint whether its main pipeline carrying contaminated water from its industrial facilities in Boardman to nearby storage ponds was leaking atop an already contaminated aquifer.

Port officials acknowledged the leak, and within days temporarily shut down the port’s wastewater system, repaired the leak and began cleaning up the contaminated area.

Port officials told DEQ that it was the first time they had heard about the leak, according to Laura Gleim, a DEQ spokesperson.

But an investigation by the Capital Chronicle found the port had known about it for some time and had not informed DEQ, violating the port’s wastewater permit.

“It would be a violation if the port knew about it and didn’t report it to us within 24 hours,” Gleim told the Oregon Capital Chronicle in a February email.

The leak occurred in an industrial area and does not appear to have harmed residents, DEQ said. Thousands in the county have been exposed for years to well water contaminated with nitrates from port wastewater and agricultural sources.

The port acknowledged the lapse on Wednesday when Lisa Mittelsdorf, the port’s executive director, told DEQ it had known about the leak before fixing it, according to Gleim. In January, the port told DEQ officials that its inspectors thought it was snowmelt, Gleim said.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” Gleim said on Wednesday.

The violation is the port’s third in just over a year. It is already facing more than $2 million in fines for allowing too much of its nitrate-laden wastewater to be spread over northeast Oregon fields for years, further contaminating an aquifer that thousands of people in Morrow and Umatilla counties rely on for drinking water.

“We are currently working through a settlement, and this is an additional violation, so it will be taken into account,” Gleim said.

She did not answer follow-up calls seeking more information by late Wednesday night, and Mittelsdorf did not answer emailed questions about why the port did not report the leak earlier or for how long port officials knew the pipe was leaking. Mittelsdorf also did not answer questions about the leak in February.

It’s unclear when the leak started. Residents told the Capital Chronicle that it could have dated to last spring.

Ryan McComb, who works at an Amazon data center at the port, said he first saw a large pool of dark and milky water near his workplace in May.

“I take that road to work and to go home, so I drive by it every day, twice a day,” he said.

He described it as a 6- to 8-foot-wide pool. He wasn’t concerned until he read the signs on purple and green stakes at the site that said: “Caution. Industrial Waste Water.”

Under its wastewater permit, the port is required to visually inspect its wastewater system daily and note irregularities. Officials must provide them to DEQ upon request. Any leaks or violations of the permit need to be reported within 24 hours. None of these reports supplied to DEQ after the leak was found, from Jan. 12 to 18, reference a leak or pooling water. DEQ first contacted the port about the leak on Jan. 18.

For the complete story, see the Oregon Capital Chronicle.