49 min

Why is eastern Oregon’s groundwater contamination crisis still unresolved after 30 years‪?‬ Beat Check with The Oregonian

    • News Commentary

Authorities in Oregon have known for over three decades that groundwater in the eastern part of the state, a rural region where many people rely on domestic wells for drinking water, is contaminated with high levels of nitrates and unsafe to drink – yet, until recently, have done little to address the problem.
Until 2022, many people in the region had no idea they had been drinking contaminated water for years. Some still don’t know it because the state has tested only about half the affected domestic wells despite a 2023 deadline to finish the testing.
Research has linked high nitrate consumption over long periods to stomach, bladder and intestinal cancers, miscarriages, as well as thyroid issues. It is especially dangerous to infants who can quickly develop “blue baby syndrome,” a fatal illness.
In May and again earlier this month, three dozen nonprofits and two retired Oregon Department of Environmental Quality administrators sent a letter to Gov. Tina Kotek asking her to make good on her promises to test all domestic wells in the region, find a permanent source of water for those forced to rely on bottled water and take action to clean up the groundwater. Kotek had visited the area after becoming governor.The letter called the nitrate contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin “among the most pressing environmental justice issues in Oregon.” Most of the population in the region is poor, Latino or Indigenous.
Late on Friday, Kotek sent a response. In her letter, the governor said she has directed the Oregon Health Authority to, among other actions, complete the testing of the remaining wells and the retesting of some households identified as being at high risk by June 30, 2025.Kristin Anderson Ostrom, the executive director of Oregon Rural Action, and Kaleb Lay, the group’s director of policy and research, talked on Beat Check about why the contamination has taken so long to address, what can be done about it in the short and long term and what the crisis says about Oregon’s approach to environmental justice.
The eastern Oregon nonprofit, alongside the Morrow County public health department, has been instrumental in testing domestic wells in the region and pushing the state to do more testing and to limit nitrate pollution.Allowing another full year to test the remaining wells and setting the bar low on retesting is not an adequate response, Ostrom said. And the state needs to take substantive action to rein in the sources of pollution, she added. Much of the nitrate contamination comes from farm fertilizer, animal manure and wastewater that are constantly applied to farm fields.
“This is an ongoing emergency and it needs to be recognized as one – the lives and health of thousands of our neighbors are at risk and it’s the State’s responsibility to protect them from further harm,” Ostrom told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
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Authorities in Oregon have known for over three decades that groundwater in the eastern part of the state, a rural region where many people rely on domestic wells for drinking water, is contaminated with high levels of nitrates and unsafe to drink – yet, until recently, have done little to address the problem.
Until 2022, many people in the region had no idea they had been drinking contaminated water for years. Some still don’t know it because the state has tested only about half the affected domestic wells despite a 2023 deadline to finish the testing.
Research has linked high nitrate consumption over long periods to stomach, bladder and intestinal cancers, miscarriages, as well as thyroid issues. It is especially dangerous to infants who can quickly develop “blue baby syndrome,” a fatal illness.
In May and again earlier this month, three dozen nonprofits and two retired Oregon Department of Environmental Quality administrators sent a letter to Gov. Tina Kotek asking her to make good on her promises to test all domestic wells in the region, find a permanent source of water for those forced to rely on bottled water and take action to clean up the groundwater. Kotek had visited the area after becoming governor.The letter called the nitrate contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin “among the most pressing environmental justice issues in Oregon.” Most of the population in the region is poor, Latino or Indigenous.
Late on Friday, Kotek sent a response. In her letter, the governor said she has directed the Oregon Health Authority to, among other actions, complete the testing of the remaining wells and the retesting of some households identified as being at high risk by June 30, 2025.Kristin Anderson Ostrom, the executive director of Oregon Rural Action, and Kaleb Lay, the group’s director of policy and research, talked on Beat Check about why the contamination has taken so long to address, what can be done about it in the short and long term and what the crisis says about Oregon’s approach to environmental justice.
The eastern Oregon nonprofit, alongside the Morrow County public health department, has been instrumental in testing domestic wells in the region and pushing the state to do more testing and to limit nitrate pollution.Allowing another full year to test the remaining wells and setting the bar low on retesting is not an adequate response, Ostrom said. And the state needs to take substantive action to rein in the sources of pollution, she added. Much of the nitrate contamination comes from farm fertilizer, animal manure and wastewater that are constantly applied to farm fields.
“This is an ongoing emergency and it needs to be recognized as one – the lives and health of thousands of our neighbors are at risk and it’s the State’s responsibility to protect them from further harm,” Ostrom told The Oregonian/OregonLive.
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49 min