BOARDMAN, Ore. — Oregon environmental regulators have fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for repeatedly over-applying agricultural wastewater on nearby farms in an area that already has elevated levels of nitrates in the groundwater.
The state Department of Environmental Quality announced the fine on Jan. 11.
Under a DEQ water quality permit, the port collects nitrogen-rich wastewater from food processors, storage facilities and data centers at its Boardman industrial park, which it then reuses to irrigate neighboring farm fields growing potatoes, onions and other high-value crops. But according to the agency, the port violated its permit more than 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 the 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.”
The Port of Morrow is Oregon’s second-largest port, behind only the Port of Portland. It is in the Umatilla Basin of northeast Oregon, where in 1990 the state declared a Groundwater Management Area due to high levels of groundwater nitrates exceeding 7 milligrams per liter.
In a statement, Ryan Neal, the port’s general manager, said it takes the violations seriously and will work in collaboration with DEQ toward finding a long-term solution that benefits local farmers, port industries and the region as a whole.
“The Port of Morrow has been working collaboratively with DEQ on the content of this action,” Neal said. “We look forward to jointly developing a resolution.”
High levels of nitrates in drinking water are linked with serious health concerns, particularly for babies and pregnant women. 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.
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 DEQ’s press release.
“The existing nitrate contamination in the basin’s groundwater means everyone in the region has to do their part to reduce this contamination,” Feldon said.
DEQ also alleges the port failed to monitor nitrogen at application sites on 121 separate occasions each year from 2018-2020.