Port of Morrow Will Pay $2 Million to Clean Up Dirty Drinking Water

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By Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle

The Port of Morrow will send nearly $2 million to the Oregon Health Authority to support clean drinking water efforts in northeast Oregon, and pay nearly half a million dollars to the state treasury following record penalties for years of groundwater pollution.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced the settlement with the state’s second largest port Tuesday, after nearly two years of negotiations. Under Oregon law, up to 80% of fines from the environmental quality department can be directed to projects that benefit communities and the environment.

Joe Taylor, president of the port’s commission, said in a news release that port leaders are committed to improving groundwater pollution in Morrow and Umatilla counties, which has grown worse during the last 30 years from farm fertilizers, manure from confined animal operations and wastewater discharge from the port and large food processing plants.

“With DEQ’s agreement, the community will be the beneficiary from a large portion of our fine,” he said.

The port was first fined $1.3 million in January 2022 for allowing excessive amounts of nitrogen to be spread across farms in winter in Morrow and Umatilla counties. Seeping into groundwater, it turned into nitrates. Consuming water high in nitrates over long periods causes adverse health effects, including an increased risk of several cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. At least 3,300 wells that draw on groundwater in the two counties are used by residents, according to the state health authority. Of the 1,000 wells tested by the agency during the past several months, one-quarter had nitrate levels above safe drinking limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Many residents who rely on wells for drinking water are Latino, and many are low income.

An investigation by the Capital Chronicle found that the Port of Morrow had violated its state wastewater permit and allowed excessive amounts of nitrogen to be spread across farms for much of the last 15 years, with little action from environmental regulators. The port is one of several sources of nitrate pollution in the area, and one of few regulated by state and federal law under the Clean Water Act.

Increased fine

The fine against the port was raised to $2.1 million in June 2022, following the discovery that port specialists had continued violating the wastewater permit in months following the January enforcement. Then, in March of 2023, area residents discovered the port had allowed its wastewater to leak for months without alerting the environmental quality department, raising the fine by an additional $60,000.

In all, the port has been fined nearly $2.5 million by state environmental regulators.

“While the port’s contribution to the overall problem is relatively small, it’s important for the port to be an active partner in a regional solution,” said Lisa Mittelsdorf, the port’s executive director.

Leah Feldon, director of the state environmental agency, said in a news release that she is satisfied with the settlement, which “provides funding for safe drinking water to those who need it, and it holds the Port of Morrow accountable for permit violations.”

The Port of Morrow has also agreed to new state regulations limiting nitrogen pollution, and committed to investing $150 million in building digesters over the next few years to treat its wastewater before it gets applied to farmland.

This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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