DEQ fines Port of Morrow $1.3 million for ‘reckless’ pumping of nitrate-laced water on farms

The Port of Morrow was fined $1.3 million on Monday, Jan. 10, for repeatedly pumping too much nitrate-laced water onto farmland. (Port of Morrow)

State officials said Tuesday that the Port of Morrow in northeast Oregon for years has spread excessive amounts of nitrate-laced wastewater on area farmlands in a way that contaminates groundwater and was “reckless” in doing so.

The state Department of Environmental Quality made that finding in announcing one of its largest pollution fines ever, levying a $1.3 million penalty against the port, a public entity headquartered in Boardman.

“DEQ issued this penalty because groundwater adversely affected by the Port of Morrow’s wintertime land application of nitrogen-containing wastewater is used as drinking water by residents” in the area, the DEQ said in its notice delivered to the port on Monday.

The DEQ said that the port’s “conduct was reckless” because the public agency “intentionally applied” excessive amounts of nitrogen. The agency also found that the port was “negligent” in failing to monitor the nitrogen.

The fine is among DEQ’s largest and reflects what it said were more than 1,000 violations of state water quality standards by the port over four years. The port district spans Morrow and Umatilla counties, including Hermiston and Boardman, and is home to the state’s largest dairy and farms that use the nitrogen-rich water collected by the port to feed their crops.

“We take this pretty seriously,” said Rick Stokoe, president of the Port of Morrow Commission and police chief in Boardman. “We acknowledge that we have some work to do.”

The port has 20 days to appeal the penalty. Stokoe said the commission would have to consult port staff and attorneys to decide the path ahead.

“We are going to work with DEQ to find solutions,” he said.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Ryan Neal, the port executive director, said, “The Port of Morrow has been working cooperatively with DEQ on the content of this action. We look forward to jointly developing a resolution.”

The Port of Morrow, the second-largest port authority in Oregon, operates several industrial complexes, serving food processors and other agricultural companies, storage facilities, data centers, shipping companies, warehouse facilities and energy businesses. Corporations located in its industrial parks include Lamb-Weston, Boardman Foods, and Tillamook Cheese.

The DEQ’s action followed an earlier penalty against the port for the same issue.

“This is a decades-long issue out there,” said Laura Gleim, DEQ spokesperson.

The DEQ explained in its notice why the nitrogen matter was so serious.

“High nitrate concentrations in drinking water are linked with serious health concerns for infants and pregnant or nursing women,” the notice said.

The port is part of a groundwater management area where water is relatively scarce and is susceptible to having high levels of nitrogen. The biggest source – nearly 70% – comes from fertilizers in irrigated agricultural land, according to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Local Action Plan. Large animal operations also contribute 12% of the nitrogen in the groundwater.The port’s wastewater and similar facilities account for nearly 5%.

The DEQ in its investigation found 1,164 violations occurred between 2018 and 2021. 

The port also failed on 363 occasions to monitor the application of nitrogen on 121 farm fields between 2018 and 2020 in what DEQ called “negligent” conduct by the port. The DEQ fine included a penalty for what it calculated that the port saved by not properly monitoring the fields, a figure it set at $19,602.

“These are serious violations of water quality regulations that are in place to protect public health and the environment,” Leah Feldon, DEQ deputy director, said in a statement. “The existing nitrate contamination in the basin’s groundwater means everyone in the region has to do their part to reduce this contamination. The Port of Morrow has not been doing its part.” 

The port collects wastewater from food processors, storage facilities and data centers at its industrial park outside Boardman and redistributes it to nearby farms growing potatoes, wheat and alfalfa. The nitrogen-rich water is good for crops but too much is bad for people. It affects the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, up to 5 parts per million of nitrates in drinking water can increase risks for colon cancer, stomach cancer and several other cancers if consumed over long periods. Too many nitrates are particularly harmful to infants. If they ingest too much – either through water or food – they essentially can become oxygen deprived and develop methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome,” according to experts. 

The limit for nitrates in drinking water was set at 10 parts per million in 1962 and has not changed since, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The DEQ does not have any information on the nitrogen levels in groundwater caused by the port’s violations.

Nitrates are difficult and expensive to remove from water. Most people in the lower Umatilla Basin, which the port serves, rely on groundwater as their primary drinking source, DEQ said. 

The port’s water quality permit allows it to use nitrogen-rich wastewater to irrigate nearby farms but requires the port to limit levels. The permit prevents overapplication to ensure that the nitrates don’t reach the groundwater.

In November 2015, DEQ fined the port for exceeding nitrate levels. The original fine of $279,000 was pared to $129,000 following an agreement requiring the port to add acreage for disposing of the water. The following year, DEQ fined the port $8,400 for making building without state authority a facility and storage pond for dewatering of wastewater pond solids. The port paid the penalty.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.