Thursday, April 27, 2023

By:  Jason Chaney

Central Oregonian

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley held a town hall in Prineville to answer questions and hear concerns from a crowd of roughly 70 local constituents.

He fielded queries and concerns ranging from a local groundwater issue to the Greater Idaho movement to drug prices and more during a session held at Barnes Butte Elementary early Sunday afternoon.

One of the most frequently raised concerns stems from a groundwater issue near a Knife River mining site in Northwest Prineville. The 99-acre aggregate mine located on property owned by late Prineville resident Craig Woodward was approved in a split vote by the Crook County Planning Commission in September 2015. In July 2021, Knife River applied to expand the mining operation to include an adjacent 78-acre property owned by Robert and Lani Vanier of Dayville. Application was made, according to a Crook County Planning Commission document, because the aggregate reserve on the Woodward property is depleted.

The expansion still awaits Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) approval before mining can take place. But beginning last year, several residences surrounding the site started seeing high levels of manganese in their water supply, leading to health complications for people and livestock and damaging plumbing pipes.

Several audience members spoke about the contamination, expressing frustration that the DEQ and DOGAMI have failed to take action on the issue.

“That’s a big deal,” Merkley said, referencing a groundwater contamination situation that he was made aware of in Hermiston. “I called the state agencies, I called the governor and said this has to be addressed. I will do the same thing.”

One audience member expressed concern that the cost of housing and education was creating a more difficult path to establishing a career and raising a family. In response, Merkley agreed that secondary education has gotten too expensive for many people to pursue.

“We have more and more jobs that require more education than previously, but we have made it harder and harder for our children to afford to get that education,” he said. “It’s just wrong.”

He believes the education system should include more shop and apprenticeship programs at the high school level and more investment in public universities “in a way that is affordable for those of modest income.” He also would like to proceed with additional subsidies to help students avoid major college debt.

“It doesn’t have to be free,” he said of secondary education, “but it should be close to debt-free.”

Continuing on the cost-of-living topic, Merkley went on to address drug prices, noting that Americans pay a lot for prescription medications than any other developed nation. He added that America invests the most in drug research and development.

“We should get the best prices on drugs, not the worst,” he said.

But efforts to negotiate better drug prices have been thwarted, he said, by powerful corporate lobbying. Merkley called it a real challenge because of the high number of lobbyists (two to three per member of Congress) and their influence on federal lawmakers.

Another town hall participant brought up the Greater Idaho Movement, an effort to move the Oregon/Idaho border west and envelop multiple Eastern and Central Oregon counties.

“What it takes, under the Constitution, to redraw the border is both states that are affected have to pass a law saying they want the change. Then, it would have to pass through the (U.S.) House and Senate and be signed by the President,” Merkley said. “That just never happens anymore.”

However, the senator went on to acknowledge the root cause of the movement.

“I think we should recognize that it stems in part from a sense that we have very different types of communities around our state,” he said, “and those who are elected need to understand the differences and advocate for the different issues.”

Merkley concluded the hourlong town hall session with gratitude for the people who chose to spend their weekend afternoon at the event.

“The republic works best when we have a lot of dialogue,” he said, “so thank you for coming to be a part of it.”