BOARDMAN, Ore. (AP) — Officials in Oregon’s Morrow County along the Columbia River have declared a local state of emergency after private well testing showed high levels of nitrate contamination.
During a Thursday special meeting, Morrow County commissioners voted 3-0 in favor of the measure, which will allow the county to take immediate action to protect drinking water, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. It’s believed to be the first time an Oregon county has declared a state of emergency over water quality issues.
The county is distributing bottled water and setting up water distribution trailers in the small city of Boardman.
Groundwater is the primary drinking source for residents in the county but it’s been plagued by high levels of nitrates. The state designated Morrow and adjacent Umatilla counties as groundwater management areas more than 30 years ago. A committee was formed to address the issue and identify activities that contribute to the contamination.
But state data shows the nitrate problem has only gotten worse.
“It’s been an ongoing issue,” Morrow County Commissioner Chair Jim Doherty said. “It’s not something that just hit us in the last week, and we’ve been approaching it from lots of different angles.”
Drinking high levels of nitrate can lead to respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction and stomach or bladder cancer. It can also cause “blue baby syndrome,” which decreases the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen.
Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for overapplying 165 tons of nitrogen-rich wastewater onto agricultural fields over a four-year period and failing to monitor the nitrate contamination.
The Port of Morrow released a statement this week saying it’s considering millions of dollars in upgrades to reduce pollution and is eager to play a role in finding workable solutions.
Doherty said he hopes the declaration will help them obtain money for more home testing. Doherty has been going door-to-door with the local health department to test tap water for residents outside Boardman’s city limits.
So far, he said they’ve tested about 70 wells that were “high enough to cause some pretty severe health issues.”
A team from the nonprofit organization Oregon Rural Action is assisting the county and has tested tap water in about 60 homes in Boardman and Irrigon. The team found almost all were above the federal safe drinking water limit and dozens were five times that limit, according to Kristin Anderson Ostrom, the group’s executive director.
Zaira Sanchez, ORA’s director of organizing, said it was hard to deliver test results.
“The common response from the community was immediate shock and concern,” she said.
Sanchez said some families boil their water, but that could worsen the problem. She added some families are already spending up to $100 a month purchasing bottled water.
ORA board member and former DEQ administrator Mitch Wolgamott, who has been working with Anderson Ostrom and Sanchez, said this is the first-time elected officials have stepped up and highlighted this issue. But he said the response doesn’t go far enough.
“That’s addressing the symptoms, that doesn’t really address the cause of the problem,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to either be putting less nitrogen on the ground or we’re spreading it out a lot more.”
The Oregon Office of Emergency Management is coordinating with Morrow County to meet emergency needs of residents. OEM officials said the emergency declaration does not grant immediate access to state funds or other resources but does allow the county to implement its own emergency procedures.