Powerful port in NE Oregon pollutes water for years with little state action

Guadalupe Martinez, of Boardman, says a reverse-osmosis filter installed under the sink doesn’t work properly, and the whole-house filter behind her has been broken for years. Her family drinks bottled water to protect themselves from nitrate-tainted groundwater. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Guadalupe Martinez points to a 24-pack of bottled water by her kitchen sink with just a few bottles left, one of thousands she’s brought home over the last 18 years.

“Ever since we’ve been living here, we’ve been buying water,” she said. 

The 54-year-old grandmother knows she can’t drink the water that comes out of her tap. It would make her and her family sick.

She is not alone.

Thousands of Oregonians near the town of Boardman in the northeast corner of the state live atop an aquifer so tainted with farming chemicals that it’s not safe to drink.

State officials have known that for more than 30 years. And so has one source of that contamination – the Port of Morrow.

Officials at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality have known nitrate pollution in area groundwater is putting the health of largely low-income, Latino and immigrant families at risk. An investigation by the Capital Chronicle established that little has been done about the port’s contribution to area water contamination besides modest fines and engaging in agreements that the port in turn violated.

For years, port officials illegally pumped millions of gallons of wastewater containing nitrogen in excess of what was deemed safe by DEQ. They piped it out from their industrial complex in Boardman to nearby farmers, who used it on their cropland. The nitrogen-rich water is free – a vital commodity for farmers who grow onions, potatoes, corn and more. Once applied to the farmland, nitrogen transforms into nitrate that in turn can make drinking water unsafe.

Scientific reports show that groundwater in Morrow and Umatilla counties has long been polluted with nitrates above safe levels, the majority of which comes from area farms. The port’s excess disposal, year by year, is suspected of making the water even worse, according to DEQ and the Lower Umatilla Groundwater Basin Management Area Committee, tasked with tackling groundwater issues in the area for the last 30 years. 

Port authorities and regulators knew all that, yet the port’s excess pumping has continued to this day, according to a three-month investigation by the Capital Chronicle involving hundreds of pages of agency emails, records and more than a dozen interviews.

The pollution grew as the port grew, records show. Its industrial customers came and expanded fast, and port authorities chose to continue applying more of the nitrogen-rich water to more acres of land, rather than investing in treating the water and dramatically reducing nitrogen levels.

The nitrogen, originating in crops and the fertilizers put on area farm fields, is washed off produce and flushed into the port’s system.

Government regulators who could have put a stop to it instead dallied for years. They took only modest steps to rein in the port’s pollution. And health agencies charged with protecting people such as Martinez have done little to directly warn them their water isn’t safe to drink, relying on websites, community groups and their participation in local fairs and public events to do that work.

For the port, what enforcement was imposed appeared to be simply the cost of business. Two regulators at DEQ wrote candidly in an internal memo that it was cheaper for the port to pay a state fine than to spend millions containing the pollution.

As the state prepared recently to issue its largest fine yet to the port, those two DEQ water specialists wrote that the excess nitrate was likely to impact a community that is “disproportionately comprised by an undereducated populus, and also by peoples of color.”

The Port of Morrow was founded in 1953 with the ambition of turning arid country on the shoulder of the Columbia River into a job-producing mecca about 150 miles east of Portland. It is one of 23 such agencies formed in Oregon along waterways to foster economic expansion.

The port has acquired 12,000 acres of surrounding land in the decades since. That land now hosts four industrial parks that include an ethanol fuel plant, food processing factories and a growing number of data-processing centers. The port and its industrial customers account for about half of the jobs in Morrow County, according to the port’s recent economic analysis. 

Operating from headquarters in Boardman, a city of about 4,700, the port is managed day to day by an executive director, and governed by a board of five who are elected by those who live within the port’s boundaries.

Today, that board includes Rick Stokoe, chair, Marv Padberg, Jerry Healy, John Murray and Joe Taylor. Stokoe has served for seven years and is the Boardman police chief. Murray, a farmer and director of the Inland Development Corp., has served for 28 years. That nonprofit provides fiber optic internet in eastern Oregon.

Healy has served on the board for 27 years and is also president of the Morrow Development Corp., which finances business and development projects in Morrow County. Taylor, a farmer and a former director of the Morrow Soil and Water Conservation District, has served for 16 years. Murray, a pharmacist, was elected in 2019 to replace Larry Lindsay, who had been on the board for 52 years.

Most commissioners have been in their positions throughout the port’s explosive growth in size, profit and wastewater.

Growing by billions of dollars and gallons of wastewater

At the confluence of the Union Pacific Railroad line, the Columbia River and Interstate 84, the port grew into a main distribution point for forest products, grains, root vegetables, cattle and dairy products produced in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, according to the port’s 2021 economic analysis. 

Between 2006 and 2021, the port’s annual economic output went from $896 million to more than $2.5 billion, the port reported.

Locally and regionally grown crops are trucked to Boardman, where they are processed into food products. That requires billions of gallons of water each year. The nitrogen from fertilized crops and food products gets washed into the processing water that is then pumped into one of two storage ponds at the port, according to port officials. From there, the wastewater is pumped out to five farms through a system of pipes and pumps. 

In 2012, the port handled about 2.6 billion gallons of wastewater per year. Now, it’s up to about 3.6 billion gallons of wastewater each year, according to the port. The bulk of the nitrogen in that wastewater comes from two Lamb Weston facilities at the port where French fries, hashbrowns and other potato products are made, according to port and the port’s water discharge reports. 

The food processors, like Lamb Weston, pay the port to handle the wastewater. Payments from the processors to the port for handling the wastewater make up 22% of the port’s operating revenue. In 2001, the port made about $2 million from the wastewater. By 2021, the fee was bringing in nearly $7 million.

The farmers who receive the water don’t pay for it, but do share in the costs of getting it to their farms. 

One is Jake Madison, who owns 17,000 acres in Echo, about 16 miles from the port. He’s the fourth generation on the farm, and he and his dad, for decades, have put on their crops wastewater from a Lamb Weston French fry plant in Hermiston.

“I was kind of born and raised in managing a reuse farm,” Madison said, using the reuse term that is preferred by port officials in describing their wastewater. 

Around 2010, he wanted to get on the port’s wastewater system as well, saving him hundreds of thousands of dollars in fertilizer and providing access to more water. It took him five years to strike a deal, in large part because port officials suddenly had a pressing need for more land to use for disposing of wastewater.

“We said, ‘Okay, you know, given your permit and the project that we can build, there should be a good long term fix for you,” he said. 

The port invested $20 million in pipes and pumps that would move wastewater to a pond on Madison’s farm to then be spread over 2,800 acres of, at that time, onions, potatoes and grass seed. 

But it also meant he signed up to work within the limits imposed by DEQ on the volume of nitrogen-rich wastewater that could be applied. He had to track how much wastewater he applied and submit to annual soil and crop testing. That would tell the port and DEQ how much nitrogen the crops were taking up, and how much nitrate was making it to the groundwater.

But the port, not Madison, is responsible for seeing the DEQ conditions were obeyed – and for facing consequences when they aren’t.

When the port is facing potential trouble with its wastewater, farmers receiving the water get a call from the port.

Madison said such conversations start with Miff Devin, its water specialist.

The water permit

The port’s first permit from DEQ to discharge water onto area farmland came in 1974. Since then, that government permission to dump nitrogen-rich water has been modified and renewed dozens of times. 

Now, the permit requires port officials to monitor every step in the process to detect and track nitrogen and nitrate. That duty falls to Devin.

He was hired by the port in 1998 as an IT specialist. In 2011, he added water quality specialist to his duties.

He took on both roles when the port automated its water system. 

“How a pump works is basically a giant computer, and then that evolved,” Devin explained. 

As water quality supervisor, he is tasked to ensure the port is within environmental regulations from DEQ, the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Water Resources Department. Part of his job is to develop ways to improve and maintain water quality, according to the port.

Each day, the port records the nitrogen levels in the wastewater and how much goes out to area farms. Its state permit restricts how much water can go out given the amount of nitrogen in it and what crops it will be applied to. The amount allowed on a field of onions is different from the amount that can go onto alfalfa. 

With those reports, crop testing and yearly soil sampling, DEQ can track how much nitrogen goes out, how much the crops are taking in and, potentially, how much nitrate is leaching into the groundwater. The port contracts outside companies for soil and crop testing and reports their findings to DEQ.

For most of the port’s permit history, such reports including hundreds of pages of data on daily nitrogen levels and water discharge amounts to each farm, would be sent quarterly or annually to DEQ. Violations could be detected in the monthly averages for water nitrate levels and the amount that went out.

Regulators typically review those compliance reports only when permits get modified or renewed “due to staffing shortages and prioritization,” according to Laura Gleim, a public affairs specialist at the department. 

The reports were submitted in hard copy until 2017 and subsequently electronically. DEQ officials said they routinely were stored and then reviewed in detail when it was time to update the permit. Specialists otherwise look at reports “as they can” outside of those renewals and modifications, Gleim wrote in an email.

The port’s permit expired in 2006, but DEQ officials let the agency run on it, largely unchanged, for the next 11 years.

According to Gleim, more than half of the permits DEQ has for wastewater discharge issued in the state are on “administrative extension.” 

Under the conditions of its permit, the port was required to alert DEQ if a violation had occurred or appeared imminent. According to records of correspondence between the port and DEQ, this was communicated by Devin and, until recently, the port’s long-time executive director. Ryan Neal, who died in January, had managed the port since 2018.

A history of violations

And year after year, the port dumped illegal amounts of nitrogen-rich water, according to violations documented by the DEQ.

In the last decade alone, the port applied at least 628 tons of excess nitrogen to area farmland.

The DEQ repeatedly imposed modest penalties – if any at all – and usually made no public announcements about the violations to alert people like Guadalupe Martinez and her family. Through the 10 years ending in 2017, the DEQ fined the port just once for over applying nitrogen – $129,000 – less than 2% of the port’s revenue in one year from food processors for handling their wastewater.

DEQ records showed that Devin on occasion did alert the agency when storage ponds were nearing capacity but no document released under a public records request showed that he directly alerted regulators over the thousands of times the port was pumping excess nitrogen onto area farmlands. 

“We never felt like we were technically out of compliance,” Devin said.

The port’s current executive director, Lisa Mittelsdorf, agreed.

“I think that we’ve had growth, and regulations have changed at the same time, and I think we’re both still studying the science,” she said. “Not everyone comes to the same conclusions.” 

In 2017, port officials announced a plan to install new equipment that could remove some of the nitrogen and create more storage. But by 2021, just part of the infrastructure had been built and none of it was functioning.

For the next four years, according to DEQ records, the port continued to dump illegal amounts of nitrogen-rich water. But reports documenting more than 1,000 violations in those years generated no immediate enforcement actions by DEQ. During that time, the port also failed more than 120 times to meet its obligation to monitor nitrogen at farm sites.

That changed in 2020, when port officials asked for state permission to spread the contaminated wastewater over more acres, so there was less potential for improper application on existing fields.

Reviewing the application for nearly a year, a DEQ specialist zeroed in on the daily water discharge amounts going from the port to the farms. In the four years since the port was last sanctioned, DEQ calculated that 165 tons of nitrogen above limits was applied to farmland over the aquifer supplying drinking water for up to 4,000 people.

DEQ’s patience with the Port of Morrow was finally exhausted, according to Director Richard Whitman.

In January, DEQ fined the port nearly $1.3 million and put out a sternly-worded public statement.

“The port is not doing its part,” DEQ said in a public statement on Jan. 11.

“We’re making a point – a serious point – with the port,” Whitman said. “This is one of those situations where, if we see continuing non-compliance by the port, I think that the next step is going to court and seeking an order to curtail operations in some way. So we’re at that point with this entity.”

Meantime, the Martinez family sees no future but bottled water to live on day to day.

In the 18 years they have lived in their home about six miles miles from port headquarters, no one from the port or from any state agency came to tell them about nitrate, to test their well or provide information and resources related to special filters that can remove the nitrate. 

Such filters for an entire house can cost $4,000 or more. A filter to go under a single sink costs from $150 to $250, and needs filter screens inside of it to be replaced every six to 12 months.

No state agency regulates the water quality in domestic wells that people like the Martinez family relies on. DEQ, the state health authority and local governments share a duty to spread awareness about safe drinking water. 

Gleim said DEQ has participated in annual outdoor schools to teach students about ground and surface water pollution, and periodically participated in community events such as Walmart Safety Day, Farm Fair and local gardening symposiums to get the word out about nitrate pollution.

OHA, with a nearly $30 billion budget, says on its website that its mission is “ensuring all people and communities can achieve optimum physical, mental, and social well-being.”

Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email that the agency “provides outreach and education to domestic well users statewide. Since resources for outreach and education of this nature are resource-limited, we have historically been unable to interact directly other than via our website, and through email and phone requests for information.”

Modie noted that the health authority provides information about nitrate pollution in Spanish on its website.

But after more than 30 years of known pollution in the Boardman area, the agency may be ready to act more aggressively.

“We are in the planning stage now to work with folks in Morrow and Umatilla counties to conduct outreach and education, support water testing and water treatment solutions around nitrates in groundwater,” Modie said.

This story was developed in collaboration with the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit https://catalystjournalism.uoregon.edu or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.

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.