Community organizers band together to tackle pollution from food processors and industrial farming.
By Claire Carlson, The Daily Yonder, March 29, 2023
A crowd of volunteers gathered at the public health office in Boardman, Oregon, early Saturday morning in mid-March, chatting with each other in English and Spanish as they snacked on cookies and coffee, gearing up for the day’s event. Laid out on tables were cardboard boxes filled with plastic vials for the group to take with them as they teamed up in twos and threes to knock on doors in the community, offering free tap water tests to those who answered.
The region is home to several large farming and food processing operations that for more than 30 years have been overapplying nitrogen to the soil for use as a fertilizer. The excess nitrogen, which turns into nitrate once it’s applied to soil, has been seeping into the groundwater and contaminating thousands of rural domestic wells. The state of Oregon has done little to prevent it.
“It sucks,” said Joe Rupe, a Boardman resident, about the water. “You can’t drink it, can’t brush your teeth, can’t make your coffee with it. You can shower with it, but it feels nasty.”
The advocacy group Oregon Rural Action has been working with community members in eastern Oregon’s Morrow and Umatilla counties since last year. Their most recent organizing event in mid-March, conducted in partnership with Morrow County Public Health, was meant to spread the word about a voucher program being administered by the Oregon Health Authority to pay for well tests, which would normally cost $250. Residents can apply to the program until May 15, and the vouchers expire June 7.
In both counties, water has tested at levels as high as 40 or 50 milligrams of nitrate per liter in residents’ private wells. Long-term exposure to water with nitrate levels higher than 10 has been found to cause serious health issues like cancer and blue baby syndrome, a life-threatening condition in infants suffering from low-oxygen levels in their blood.
The state of Oregon has known about the pollution in the Lower Umatilla Basin, which overlaps Morrow and Umatilla counties, since 1989. The region was designated a “groundwater management area” in 1990 and an action committee was formed of local government officials, business owners, and residents to address the contamination.
Over three decades later, 86% of the domestic wells inside the Lower Umatilla Basin still have not been tested for nitrate, according to the local public health departments.
Of the wells that have been tested in Morrow and Umatilla counties, approximately 40% and 70% respectively have shown high nitrate levels. The Oregon Water Resources department estimates a total of 4,500 wells, used for both drinking water and agriculture, are drawing from contaminated groundwater in the basin.
In 2022, the federal Environmental Protection Agency set out criteria in a letter to Oregon state agencies to address nitrate pollution. The criteria included providing well tests, bottled water, contaminated-well mapping, increased accessibility to information in all applicable languages, and public records of any new information regarding the contamination. The federal government also allocated $1.7 million of federal funding to eastern Oregon earlier this year to address the issue.
Grassroots Organizers Fill the Gap
But so far, the state’s implementation of the federal government’s recommendations has been limited. Much of the on-the-ground work to collect pollution data has been done by county officials and volunteers.
Both English and Spanish-speaking volunteers showed up to help with the event in Boardman on March 11. Over a quarter of residents in Morrow and Umatilla counties are Latino, making it one of the more diverse regions in rural Oregon. Yet, much of the state’s work on the nitrate issue has only been conducted in English, which means well users who only speak Spanish have missed out on vital information.
“We’re supposed to feel comfortable with [state officials], but they don’t want to listen to us, they don’t want to find the best solution for us,” said Ana Maria Rodriguez, Boardman resident and community organizer with Oregon Rural Action.
When Rodriguez received the results for her well test from Oregon’s environmental quality department, they were only written in English. Rodriguez knows some English and was able to understand the results. But for well users who don’t speak the language, this information is rendered useless.
Morrow Public Health and Oregon Rural Action have made a point of offering volunteer training in multiple languages and translating well data for non-English speakers.
But the capacity of organizers is limited, especially when it comes to regulating the polluters that employ many of the people most affected by the nitrate pollution.
Polluters at the Port of Morrow and Beyond
Morrow and Umatilla counties are home to several large farming operations and the Port of Morrow, an industrial district in Boardman where food processing corporations like Tillamook Cheese and Lamb Weston, a french fry company, operate.
The Port of Morrow is known as the primary polluter in the region. Nitrogen-rich wastewater from the port’s food processors is pumped through pipelines to agricultural land a few miles away, where it’s used to water and fertilize crops.
In 2022, the port was fined $2.1 million by the Oregon Department of Environment Quality for repeatedly overapplying nitrogen-rich wastewater to the cropland. While the fine cited violations that took place over a three-year period, an investigation by the nonprofit news organization Oregon Capital Chronicle showed that the port has been polluting the groundwater for far longer, and continues to do so. In an internal memo procured by the Capital Chronicle, two state regulators wrote that it is cheaper for the port to pay the $2.1 million fine than pay to contain the nitrate pollution.
The Port of Morrow provides more than 8,400 jobs to eastern Oregonians, according to the port’s website. Many of the people employed at the port live with polluted water but fear retaliation if they speak up, according to Boardman residents the Daily Yonder spoke with.
Experts say the port is just one part of the problem.
The area’s farms are also responsible for overapplying nitrogen to the soil, but unlike the port, they don’t need a permit to apply it, said Mitch Wolgamott, the former regional administrator of the Department of Environmental Quality’s east Oregon office. Many of those unregulated farms provide products like potatoes, onions, and milk to the processors operating in the Port of Morrow.
“[The farms] are not on permits even though they’re essentially doing the same thing that the Port of Morrow does, but they do it without any regulation,” Wolgamott said. Many homes on the outskirts of this region’s small towns border those croplands. This proximity puts them at a higher risk of nitrate contamination, according to Wolgamott.
While these agriculture and food processing companies have contributed significantly to the area’s wealth, many of their employees are still impoverished and facing the brunt of the drinking water crisis, say county officials.
“These are the folks that are making this whole area thrive,” said Jim Doherty, former Morrow County commissioner. “Twenty-five years ago we were in dire straits,” he said. “Now the county is rich. But we still lead the state by a factor of 10 times in trailer houses.”
And for the folks who use well water, the responsibility lies on the wellowner to ensure it’s safe to drink.
Protecting Water Is the Well Owner’s Responsibility
Rural residents are responsible for monitoring their water quality because private wells – which are most commonly found in rural areas, according to federal data – are not regulated by government agencies.
In Boardman, houses on the north side of town are connected to the public water system, which is regulated by the Oregon Health Authority and regularly tested and treated for pollutants, including nitrate. But on the south side, where homes are accessed by dirt roads and bordered by farms, most residents get their water from unregulated private wells.
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act that protects the nation’s public drinking water does not mandate any protections for private wells that serve fewer than 25 individuals. This means that the responsibility – and cost – of testing and treating polluted water falls on the wellowner, even if the pollution is caused by someone else.
Mike Pearson, a long-time Boardman resident, is no stranger to this responsibility. He owns a home at the southeastern edge of town, where he’s raised numerous farm animals since he first moved to the area in 1993. All of his animals drink water from his well, and over the years, he’s lost cows, pigs, chickens and dogs to tumors and stillbirths.
When Pearson first tested his well, the nitrate levels were at 46.8 milligrams per liter. He installed a reverse osmosis filtration system to lower the water’s nitrate levels, but they only decreased to 26.8 milligrams per liter – over two times the maximum level deemed safe by the federal government.
Pearson and his wife have relied on bottled water since last summer, which is provided for free by Morrow County officials. Morrow County declared a state of emergency last June because of the nitrate pollution.
Well users have been able to get safe drinking water delivered directly to their homes since last summer, but it’s not a permanent solution. On December 31, the state of emergency expired and was not re-upped by the three new Morrow County commissioners who took office in early January. The free water is guaranteed only through June.
Organizers say that regulating the polluters is the long-term solution, but it’s a challenge policymakers seem reluctant to take on. “The problem is that nobody wants to own the issue,” said Nella Parks, a community organizer with Oregon Rural Action.
“The state doesn’t want it, the [Port of Morrow] doesn’t want it, and the county doesn’t want it, because it’s gonna be really expensive.”
Few Policymakers Have Shown Up
Community organizers have invited state legislators to visit Morrow and Umatilla counties to meet with those affected by the pollution. So far, only U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon has shown up. Organizers sent a letter to newly elected Governor Tina Kotek in January urging her to meet with them, but they have heard nothing from her office.
The federal government, on the other hand, has been somewhat more responsive. On Monday, March 20, Casey Sixkiller, the west region administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, visited Boardman to talk to community members and tour the neighborhoods affected by well contamination.
The community asked the agency for several deliverables: rapid deadlines for the recommendations the agency gave the state of Oregon last summer, accountability for the polluters, a community health assessment to understand the severity of the nitrate’s health impacts, and leadership and solidarity from the state government, specifically Governor Kotek.
Sixkiller did not commit to these deliverables during his March 20 visit. He did, however, promise that the meeting would be the first of many between the Environmental Protection Agency and Morrow and Umatilla county residents.
While Sixkiller’s visit spurred some hope among locals, others are more skeptical after years of inaction.
“I hate to say it but our government officials don’t seem like they give a damn,” said Pearson, the Boardman resident whose well tested four times higher than the safe limit. “That’s what burns me up about the whole thing. They just stay in their office.”
With or without governmental support, grassroots organizers still plan to protect Morrow and Umatilla county residents from pollution as best they can. The door-to-door event in mid-March was the first of several such events to get the word out about free well tests.
The organizers hope their continued efforts can capture the attention of policymakers.
“Our message is clear,” said Rodriguez, one of the organizers helping with the volunteer events. “We demand clean water now, and we demand a clear plan to get it.”
FEATURED IMAGE: A pivot irrigation system with a drainage canal in the foreground. Water and nitrogen fertilizer is applied to crops using these irrigation systems. (Photo by Claire Carlson/The Daily Yonder)