Residents Sue Port of Morrow, Businesses for Water Contamination

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Gov. Tina Kotek on Wednesday, May 23, 2023, looks under the kitchen sink of community organizer Ana Maria Rodriguez at her home in Boardman to examine the water filtration system some residents have to switch out every month. (Yasser Marte/East Oregonian file photo)

By Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle

Several residents of Boardman in northeast Oregon are suing the Port of Morrow and businesses for contaminating their drinking water, making it a health risk for thousands of people in Morrow and Umatilla counties.

Five local residents – Michael Pearson, Michael and Virginia Brandt, and James and Silvia Suter – filed their suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Pendleton against Lamb Weston, Madison Ranches, Threemile Canyon Farms, the Port of Morrow and Beef Northwest. The lawsuit seeks class action status for the case on behalf of all affected residents in Morrow and Umatilla counties who own or rent their homes, which could bring tens of thousands of other plaintiffs into the suit.

The plaintiffs have undrinkable water in their wells, and testing in some cases showed levels of nitrate at more than four times the safe limit established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the suit says. It argues that the defendants, which include industrial farms, expansive animal operations and the state’s second largest port, should be held accountable by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which authorizes the federal agency to control hazardous waste and allows anyone to seek redress in federal court for polluting the environment and posing a threat to public health.

The residents accuse the port and companies of knowingly and repeatedly dumping millions of tons of excess nitrogen onto fields, contaminating the groundwater and potentially causing serious health problems. Together, Lamb Weston and the Port of Morrow have violated their wastewater permits hundreds of times over the last decade, allowing millions of tons of excess nitrogen to seep into the groundwater. The state has fined the port more than $2 million, and state officials indicated to the Capital Chronicle that it will face more fines.

The lawsuit seeks an order mandating that the defendants establish a state-backed groundwater remediation and cleanup program and a program to monitor the health of residents exposed to the contaminated water. They also want the entities to ensure that residents are diagnosed and treated in a timely fashion for any illnesses caused by the nitrate contamination. The lawsuit brought by lawyers from the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman does not name damages.

The suit comes 10 months after Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek visited Boardman residents and promised swift action, nearly two years after the Morrow County Commission declared an emergency over the contamination, and more than 30 years after the state first acknowledged the area’s water supply needed to be cleaned up.

Pearson, one of the plaintiffs, told Kotek at that community meeting in Boardman that he had been drinking his well water for 30 years, unaware until 2022 that it contained more than four times the safe limit of nitrates set by federal authorities.

“When we bought the place, they didn’t say a darn thing about nitrate,” he told Kotek.

The Suters’ well water is also nearly four-times the EPA’s safe limit and nearly five times higher than it was in 1999 when they bought their home and had the water tested, the suit says.

When they researched options for getting clean water, they learned they’d need to drill a new well at least 300 feet down to hit water less likely to be contaminated with nitrate, at a cost of  $24,000, according to the complaint.

“Plaintiffs and other class members should not be required to tolerate continued exposure to contaminated water or to bear the cost of obtaining non-polluted water,” the lawsuit says.

This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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