Nitrate Pollution Protest Drives Changes at Eastern Oregon Groundwater Committee

Nitrate Pollution Protest Drives Changes at Eastern Oregon Groundwater Committee

A committee charged with reducing groundwater contamination in Morrow and Umatilla counties is being restructured to address growing concerns about dangerous nitrate contamination in local drinking water.

On Friday, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality appointed new members to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Committee and helped launch an effort to restructure how the group operates.

Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty shows Silvia Hernandez the results of her well water testing for nitrates that exceeded federal limits for safe drinking water nearly five times on April 15, 2022.

Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty displays Silvia Hernandez’s test results indicating her well water has nitrate levels that exceed federal safe drinking water limits by nearly five times on April 15, 2022 .

Monica Samayoa / OPB

The committee is charged with finding out what is causing high nitrate levels in groundwater and developing recommendations to reduce them. Groundwater is the main source of drinking water for the two counties, and is being polluted by a variety of sources, including irrigated agriculture, wastewater from food processing, animal feeding operations such as dairies and feedlots, wastewater from tank systems septic tanks and the pump wash lagoons of the US Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot.

The committee’s reforms come after more than three decades of unsuccessful efforts to reduce pollution. Nitrate contamination in area groundwater has actually gotten worse since the committee was formed in 1990.

This summer, Morrow County declared an emergency in response to contaminated drinking water and bottled water distributed to affected residents. Environmental groups have asked the Environmental Protection Agency for help, and the agency’s chief sent a letter in july threatening to intervene if the state of Oregon did not take action against nitrate polluters.

On Friday, DEQ added new membership categories for the general public and tribal members to better represent community concerns. associate professor at Oregon State University Salini Sasidharan is the new chairman of the committee, which will now create bylaws to add organizational structure as the board looks for ways to reduce nitrate pollution in the region.

“We will look back in a very short time and say we kicked the football and started the game today,” Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said during the meeting. “We have only been practicing for the last 30 years. Now we’re going to do it for real.”

Kristin Anderson Ostrom of Oregon Rural Action is a member of the newly appointed committee representing the general public. She has been testing residents’ private drinking water wells in the area and found that more than two hundred of them exceeded federal standards. Some tested up to five times the federal limit for safe drinking water. Anderson Ostrom said she is happy the committee is reorganizing and moving forward, but she feels urgency is still lacking.

“We have people who wake up every morning and drink their tap water and don’t know if the water is safe or not,” he said. “So there is real urgency to start dealing with this long-term issue that is missing and we hope that members of the community, now that they have a seat at the table, can help remind the rest of the stakeholders on the committee ”.

Anderson Ostrom said he would like the other open position for the general public to be filled by someone whose well is contaminated to create that sense of urgency to find a solution sooner rather than later.

Annie Philpott says her family's private well needs to be replaced but she doesn't have the money to replace it.  The Philpotts were hoping to refinance her home, but didn't qualify after her well system proved too high for nitrates.

Annie Philpott says her family’s private well needs to be replaced but she doesn’t have the money to replace it. The Philpotts were hoping to refinance her home, but didn’t qualify after her well system proved too high for nitrates.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

He also said the committee should focus on public education and outreach because many community members “don’t know” about the high nitrate levels in the area.

DEQ Eastern Oregon Regional Solutions Liaison Randy Jones, who supports the committee, said this is the first time the committee has restructured in more than three decades.

“Over time, there hasn’t been a lot of actionable work that has come out of committee, and nitrate concentrations have basically been on the rise,” he said.

Nitrate levels have steadily increased in the region since at least 1997, but the committee can only provide best practices or voluntary measures as solutions.

At their Friday meeting, committee members pledged to restructure and find solutions that provide safe drinking water to community members, but it was unclear if they would advocate for regulatory requirements.

Jones said that many things led to the structural changes. Earlier this year, the agency fined the morning port and potato processor Weston lamb for sewage contamination that added hundreds of tons of nitrate contamination to groundwater. That prompted public outcry and a call from Anderson Ostrom’s group for the state to step in and take over. Jones said the changes are also a response to environmental groups that filed a petition in 2020 with the EPA asking the federal agency to take emergency action and provide clean drinking water.

“Also, there was a drinking water emergency declaration for the first time declared by Morrow County,” he said. “So these were all signs that it was time to take a hard look at the committee and how it was organized.”

Drinking high levels of nitrate can lead to respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction, and stomach or bladder cancer. It can also cause “blue baby syndrome,” which decreases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, especially in babies who drink baby formula mixed with contaminated water. According to the EPA, nitrate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter can cause serious health problems.

During Friday’s meeting, DEQ said it recently sampled 30 private wells the agency monitors and found 11 of them exceeded federal limits for safe drinking water.

The committee will meet again next year to continue creating charters and new groups of subcommittees to better address the contamination issue.

Leave a Comment