DEQ fines Port of Morrow $1.3 million for nitrate violations in area with groundwater contamination
Boardman, OR (1/11/2022) — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for repeatedly overapplying wastewater containing nitrogen to agricultural fields and failing to monitor those fields in the Lower Umatilla Basin—an area with longstanding groundwater contamination.
Groundwater is used as a primary drinking water source by residents in the basin, which spans northern Morrow and Umatilla counties. High levels of nitrate in drinking water is linked with serious health concerns, particularly for infants and pregnant women.
The Port of Morrow collects wastewater from food processors, storage facilities and data centers in its industrial park outside Boardman. The port has a DEQ water quality permit that allows it to use the nitrogen-rich wastewater beneficially for irrigation on nearby farms, but the permit includes limits on how much nitrogen can be applied to the farmland and how much nitrate can be present in soil prior to applications. The port violated these limits more than a thousand times, resulting in approximately 165 tons of excess nitrogen being applied between 2018-2021. The port also failed to monitor nitrogen at application sites on 121 separate occasions each year from 2018 to 2020.
“These are serious violations of water quality regulations that are in place to protect public health and the environment,” said Leah Feldon, DEQ deputy director. “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, and DEQ looks forward to working together to correct these violations and protect our aquifers from future contamination.”
Nitrogen limits prevent overapplication and ensure nitrates don’t filter down through the soil into groundwater. Nitrogen is a beneficial plant nutrient but applying too much can contribute to groundwater contamination.
Drinking water with high levels of nitrates can increase risk of methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, especially for infants who drink baby formula mixed with water containing nitrate above the safe level.
Public drinking water systems must monitor and maintain safe drinking water, but the same regulations do not apply to privately owned wells in Oregon. Private well users are responsible for monitoring and maintaining their own drinking water. Learn more about nitrates and well water from the Oregon Health Authority. Information is also available in Spanish here.
Reducing nitrate contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin
DEQ identified the Port of Morrow’s wastewater as one of many sources contributing to nitrate contamination in the area’s groundwater. The primary source of contamination is fertilizer use on irrigated farmland, followed by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), pastures, food processing wastewater systems and septic systems.
DEQ is also working with the Port of Morrow and other industrial facilities in the area to ensure appropriate and agronomic irrigation practices during the non-growing season when crop uptake of nitrate is minimal. There is increased risk of nitrate reaching groundwater during the non-growing season.
Reducing groundwater nitrate contamination from food processors is a goal of the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area (LUBGWMA) Second Local Action Plan, which was finalized in October 2020. The port and other local businesses and organizations contributed to the development of that action plan.
Media contact: Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist, 503-577-3697, email@example.com