BOARDMAN, Ore. (AP) — Oregon has fined the Port of Morrow along the Columbia River $1.3 million for repeatedly over-applying agricultural wastewater on nearby farms in an area that already has elevated levels of groundwater nitrates.
The Capital Press reports the state Department of Environmental Quality announced the fine Tuesday.
High levels of nitrates in drinking water are linked with serious health concerns, particularly for babies and pregnant women.
The Port of Morrow is Oregon’s second-largest port, behind the Port of Portland. It is in the Umatilla Basin of northeast Oregon, where in 1990 the state declared a Groundwater Management Area because of high levels of groundwater nitrates.
Groundwater is used as a primary source of drinking water across the basin, which spans northern Umatilla and Morrow counties — including the cities of Hermiston, Boardman, Irrigon, Stanfield and Echo.
Under a department water quality permit, the port collects nitrogen-rich wastewater from food processors, storage facilities and data centers at its industrial parks near Boardman. It then reuses it to irrigate farm fields growing potatoes, onions and other crops.
But according to the agency, the port violated its permit over 1,000 times from 2018 to 2021, exceeding the limit on how much nitrogen can be safely applied to farmland and resulting in 165 tons of excess nitrogen in fields.
Leah Feldon, DEQ deputy director, said these are “serious violations of water quality regulations that are in place to protect public health and the environment.”
In a statement, Ryan Neal, the port’s general manager, said it takes the violations seriously and will work with DEQ toward finding a long-term solution that benefits local farmers, port industries and the region.
Historically, the sources of groundwater contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area are fertilizer used on irrigated farmland, confined animal feeding operations, livestock pastures, food processing wastewater and septic systems, according to the state agency.
DEQ also alleges the port failed to monitor nitrogen at application sites on more than 100 separate occasions each year from 2018-2020.