Sen. Merkley Gets Little Slack During Town Hall Meeting in Boardman

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Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley answers questions at the May 19 town hall at the Boardman Senior Center. (Photo by Yasser Marte/East Oregonian)

Nitrate contamination of residential well water was the hot-button issue at Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall in Boardman.

About 20 people came to the event Sunday, May 19, at the Boardman Senior Center. Merkley took little time to get to questions from the audience.

Zaira Sanchez, director of community organizing with Oregon Rural Action, thanked Merkley for his leadership on advocating for rural communities.

“As you know, we unfortunately continue to fight against the nitrate contamination in our lower Umatilla Basin,” she said.

She asked how the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene — WASH — Sector Development Act of 2022 could help residents using wells with contaminated water. Oregon’s senior U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, introduced the bill to expand access to clean drinking water. The bill remains in committee.

Merkley pointed out there are a number of community leaders and state and local officials working on this challenge, but this is not a federal matter. Still, he said, he is invested in “making sure we get to an ultimate solution here” on nitrate contamination.

Mike Brandt, of Boardman, said water pollution violations continue with no improvement.

“They’re dumping poison water on us. Literally, you know,” he said, and that pollution killed his wife.

Merkley expressed condolences for his loss and said the nitrate pollution has caused health issues. But he disagreed on the matter of progress.

Families have received filtration systems that are lowering nitrate levels in their drinking water to make it safer, he said, and water deliveries continue. And the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality continues to levy big fines against the Port of Morrow.

And the port is working on a $400-plus million project to build infrastructure to solve its pollution problem.

But Brandt countered that was not his point at all.

“I was talking about all the rules that the perpetrators have broken,” he said. “They’ve been given permits to do this. And they haven’t followed the rules. … they keep getting away with contaminating the soil day after day, after day, after day. Illegally — while doing it illegally.”

Ron Farmer, of Stanfield, asked Merkley why the price of power keeps going up. He said dams on the Columbia River do not run at capacity and there’s talk of breaching the lower Snake River dams, which would mean more renewable energy production on farmland.

Pacific Power provides electricity to the Pendleton area and Wallowa County and is pushing for a 16.9% residential rate hike, effective in 2025. That would increase the average residential power bill more than $29 a month, according to the company, which raised its rates 18% at the start of 2024.

Pacific Power has reported it needs the money for investments in transmission and renewables, increased wildfire insurance costs and wildfire risk management and increased vegetation management costs.

Merkley told the crowd that while he was no expert on this topic, his understanding is the increase in big data centers comes with a demand for big power consumption.

But Farmer, much like Brandt, contended that was not his point. He said he wanted to know why the government is “incentivizing these eyesores” of renewable energy projects when local dams are not running at capacity most of the time.

Merkley explained the push for renewables comes from the push to reduce carbon emissions to combat climate change, which already has led to the loss of snowpack and longer, hotter fire seasons.

Other matters

One resident asked the senator about getting behind a national standard for headlight beam brightness during night time driving.

“It is blinding, it is dangerous,” the woman said. “It is threatening because there’s no standardization of beams on automobiles.”

Merkley said this is a matter his office is looking into now and is trying to get answers about from the U.S. Department of Transportation. He agreed this is a real issue.

Daniel Wattenburger, of Hermiston, said while nitrate contamination is an obvious health issue, nitrates remain important for farmers and irrigators to grow food without using more water.

Merkley said the Port of Morrow’s big project to build massive storage lagoons will hold runoff from crops so it does not get into groundwater. He also said farmers are talking about ways to use water and technology better.

Getting hedge funds out of housing

Other questions dealt with the continued need for ensuring food security and help with homelessness. Merkley ran with that to discuss legislation he is spearheading to get hedge funds out of the single family housing market. Hedge funds, he said, can buy a thousand homes at half price, then drive up prices to make a massive profit.

“They’re taking the slice of the American pie that essentially was the biggest wealth-builder for middle class America,” he said, “and they’re saying, ‘We want to take that and we’re going to take off middle class America’s plate and we’re going to put it on our millionaire-billionaire plate.’”

He said his bill would not allow hedge funds to buy any more single-family homes and make them divest at least 10% a year for a 10-year period.

“How many here would like to see us get the hedge funds out of the housing market?” Merkley asked the crowd.

Most raised their hands.

“OK,” he said, how many people think that’s a terrible idea?”

No one raised a hand.

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