BOARDMAN, Ore. (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency is urging Oregon to clean up water contamination from nitrates in the eastern part of the state, warning it could step in under the Safe Drinking Water Act in the absence of sufficient local action.
It's been three decades since state agencies first noted high levels of nitrate contamination in the groundwater in Morrow and Umatilla counties, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, and residents have long complained that the pollution is negatively impacting their health.
Environmental groups say that large-scale livestock and agriculture operations are largely to blame for the contamination. The two counties have a combined population of more than 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller met with dozens of residents, representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the local nonprofit Oregon Rural Action in Boardman, Oregon, on Monday to hear firsthand how the contamination is affecting people's lives. It was the first time a regional administrator from the federal agency visited the region over nitrate pollution concerns, according to OPB.
“We’ll determine whether EPA needs to step in and take any further action,” EPA Region 10 spokesperson Bill Dunbar said.
Nitrate levels exceeding 10 milligrams per liter can cause serious health risks if consumed, according to the EPA. In some cases, home tests by area residents have shown nitrates at four to five times that level.
High levels of nitrates can lead to increased heart rate, headaches, stomach cramps and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists fertilizers, septic systems, animal feedlots and industrial waste as common sources of nitrate pollution.
The state and a local committee have worked on voluntary measures to reduce the contamination. But nitrate levels in the area’s main source of drinking water have steadily increased and no mandatory action has been taken to begin cleanup, OPB reported.
Residents are calling for stronger action and Oregon Rural Action is treating the situation as an emergency.
"We’re going to keep making sure that it’s not comfortable for elected officials and people who have more power than these rural folks,” said Nella Parks, senior organizer for the group. “It’s not gonna be comfortable for them to continue ignoring these people’s situations.”
Oregon Rural Action is part of a coalition of environmental groups that petitioned the EPA in 2020 to request it take emergency action on the issue.
The EPA has asked the state to conduct more well testing in order to better understand the source and extent of the contamination and whose wells are affected.
The Oregon Health Authority announced Wednesday that it will provide vouchers through May to cover testing costs for private well owners in Morrow and Umatilla counties. To be eligible for the free testing, residents must use the well water for drinking, bathing, cooking or washing dishes.
So far, the health agency has distributed 38 vouchers in Morrow County and one in Umatilla County, according to OPB. It said it will continue to work closely with both counties to test more wells and use the results to identify which households need treatment or free drinking water.