Oregonians with polluted wells demand state of emergency
Residents from Eastern Oregon affected by ongoing groundwater pollution demand Gov. Tina Kotek to declare state of emergency
Residents affected by the ongoing groundwater contamination in Eastern Oregon traveled to Salem on Monday, demanding the governor declare a public health emergency in the region.
Six residents from Morrow and Umatilla counties along with members from local organization Oregon Rural Action gathered at the state Capitol to ask Gov. Tina Kotek for a specific plan to stop nitrate contamination. The area has been burdened with nitrate pollution for more than 30 years and groundwater is the main source of drinking water in the region.
Speaking at a press conference, residents shared stories on how nitrate pollution is affecting their lives, from health issues to limiting time with their families. They brought jars filled with water samples from their homes that were labeled with nitrate levels. All of them were at least three times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standard of 10 milligrams per liter.
Oregon Rural Action director of community organizing Zaira Sanchez said declaring a public health emergency will provide the resources necessary to put the region on a path toward long-term solutions.
“An emergency response prioritizes public safety and we need that emergency response to warn people of the risk: Don’t drink the water until you know it’s safe,” she said.
Sanchez said the state needs to urgently test an estimated 4,500 wells in the region and to deliver enough free drinking water for affected homes.
“Eighty-four percent of the wells are still untested and people need to know if their water is safe. Tests need to happen quickly,” Sanchez said.
For the past year, Oregon Rural Action has conducted door-to-door testing on more than 700 wells in the area. About 40% of wells tested in Morrow County are unsafe, with some wells testing more than five times the federal limit, the group said. The community group and others have pointed to local agriculture as a likely culprit for excess nitrates seeping into the groundwater.
During the press conference, Oregon Rural Action community organizer Ana Maria Rodriguez conducted rapid tests on three jars brought by residents. All of the jars immediately tested more than three times the federal limit.
“We don’t need more words to describe what is happening here, this is a high nitrate level,” Rodriguez said through an interpreter.
For more than three decades, nitrates have contaminated the groundwater in the Lower Umatilla Basin. It’s been declared a groundwater management area but the state has taken little action to resolve the issue. Residents and local organizations have grown increasingly impatient over the past year with the lack of progress. Last month, the EPA region administrator warned the federal agency could step in if the state doesn’t quickly address the nitrate issue.
Kotek did not meet with the group Monday, although her representatives and other lawmakers did. Kotek press secretary Anca Matica said via email the governor is working on developing long-term solutions and plans to visit the area in the coming weeks.
ORA’s executive director Kristin Anderson Ostrom said the group will continue to ask for a public health emergency because it would bring additional resources. Anderson Ostrom estimates the governor should budget at least $10 million for continued free water testing, free water delivery and more filters every two years.
“The governor’s office now has the opportunity to take the lead in working with the community to address the emergency that this is,” she said.
On Friday, the Oregon Health Authority removed a deadline it has set for a free voucher well testing program in the area.
So far, the agency has distributed 87 vouchers, 55 in Morrow County and 32 in Umatilla County. Of the 33 vouchers that have been used for testing, 24 households tested above the federal limit. As of Friday, 179 well users in Morrow County are receiving water deliveries. There is no data on water deliveries for Umatilla County.
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