EPA urges Oregon to take action against nitrate polluters

Silvia Hernandez’s private well in the outskirts of Boardman, Oregon on April 15, 2022. The EPA hailed the state’s efforts to provide drinking water to Morrow County residents affected by nitrate pollution , but wanted more action to fix the problem at its source.

Monica Samayoa/OPB

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is urging state officials to take more action on nitrate pollution in the lower Umatilla Basin in eastern Oregon.

A July 29 letter from the EPA to the Oregon Health Authority, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and Oregon Department of Agriculture commended the state for certain of steps he has taken to provide Morrow County residents with clean drinking water, but said it was not enough. .

“The EPA expects the state to hold nitrate sources accountable by requiring them to assume some of the responsibilities outlined above and, more importantly, to change their practices to reduce the amount of nitrate they discharge into groundwater,” wrote EPA Director Edward Kowalski. Region 10 Enforcement and Compliance Division.

Nitrates are a chemical commonly found in fertilizers. In excessive amounts, they can affect the health of the lungs, thyroid, and bladder.

High nitrate levels in Morrow County and western Umatilla County’s groundwater supply have been on the state radar for more than 30 years, but a recent round of private well water testing in the Boardman area revealed that many residents had dangerous levels of nitrates in their alcohol consumption. the water.

Kowalski highlighted a lower Umatilla Basin work plan completed by the three agencies, with the plan including nitrate contamination education initiatives, free drinking water testing and alternative water sources if needed. . He also praised the agencies’ plans to seek funding for these initiatives at the September meeting of the Oregon Legislative Emergency Council and the 2023 long session.

But Kowlaski wrote that the state could no longer rely on voluntary practices and needed to address the source of the nitrates. According to a 1997 study by the state Department of Environmental Quality, agricultural and industrial operations were among the top sources of this chemical.

Kowalski encouraged the state to regulate industrial discharges and animal feeding operations through a permitting system established by the EPA’s National Pollutant Release Elimination System.

Before finishing the letter, Kowalski left the door open for the EPA to take emergency action in eastern Oregon.

“The Agency will continue to monitor the situation closely and will continue to assess options for further Agency response if necessary,” he wrote.

Responding to requests for comment, representatives from the Oregon Departments of Environmental Quality and Agriculture explained the enforcement work they were already doing while pointing out obstacles to its expansion.

Laura Gleim of DEQ reiterated the agency’s stance on enforcement: it would take action where it could, but its scope was limited.

“The DEQ is using the regulatory authority we have to reduce nitrate contamination from specific sources, including adopting stricter limits for food processing wastewater treatment facilities,” he said. she writes in an email. “However, the DEQ only has regulatory authority over a small portion of the identified sources of nitrate in this area.”

Liz Beeles of the ODA said her agency would continue to monitor and regulate groundwater pollution from animal feeding operations and some irrigated crops. But the latter might be difficult to follow.

“The current monitoring framework makes it difficult to identify specific sources of irrigated agricultural nutrients and relate them to water quality outcomes in groundwater,” she wrote.

Beeles added that the department was looking for ways to “support or improve” the voluntary measures proposed in a 2020 plan.

Instead of focusing on law enforcement, Oregon Health Authority spokesman Jonathan Modie detailed his agency’s legislative efforts.

In an email, Modie wrote that the OHA will request money from the Emergency Board for well treatment systems and replacement water filters for affected households through June 2023.

During the long session of the Legislative Assembly next year, the OHA plans to seek money to pay for, among other things, a new National Well Safety Coordinator position.

Morrow County Emergency Manager Paul Gray, who helped coordinate the county’s emergency response to nitrate pollution, did not return requests for comment.

Scott Lukas, chairman of the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Committee, was traveling and said he would not be able to comment until Monday.

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