Merkley pushes Oregon officials to monitor Crook County wells near mine site


Five people, including one U.S. senator, squeezed into a rural farmhouse bathroom near Prineville, Oregon, on a recent Sunday morning.

The group watched intently as the homeowner, Doug Payne, lifted the lid off his toilet tank. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley stooped under the towel rack to get a closer look, then stuck his hand in the tank.

The inky water in the back of the toilet left a black ring on the porcelain as it sloshed, and Merkley’s fingers emerged with dark beads of sediment dripping through them.

“This kind of grit — this is what you’re facing?” Merkley asked Payne, who nodded from under a trucker’s cap.

Merkley went on: “The water that’s in the tank is the same water that’s coming out of the faucet, correct? Well, I wouldn’t want to be drinking that.”

The senator didn’t wash off his hands in the house’s tap water, either, opting to clean up with some hand sanitizer on the bathroom counter. Outside the house, another two dozen other residents milled around the driveway, waiting to talk with Merkley about their muddy taps, health concerns, mysterious livestock deaths, and plumbing nightmares.

This was likely Merkley’s most intimate briefing on the well water problems in Crook County, but it was far from his first. Last year an aide from his office came to examine the same blackened toilet tank, as the senator launched a campaign to pressure state and federal regulators to intervene on behalf of at least 30 households whose sole domestic water supply changed drastically for the worse after a gravel mine opened in their neighborhood.

Lab tests the residents have paid for since 2022 show their well water contains varying levels of manganese, aluminum and other metals. Testing paid for by OPB last year turned up similar results. Depending on its concentration, manganese can cause a range of problems, from bad smells and stained laundry, to liver issues and neurological dysfunction.

The mine operator Knife River Corporation Northwest has denied polluting the groundwater. Spokesperson Jay Frank said the region’s mineral-rich volcanic geology is the source of the residents’ water troubles, and that Knife River’s testing of wells on and near its site shows no changes to water quality over the last seven years.

Knife River is currently seeking a state mining permit to expand its footprint in Crook County. That’s as state environmental health regulators are responding to political pressure over the contaminated groundwater by seeking federal funding for an independent plan to monitor wells in the area.

A 2023 OPB investigation revealed that Oregon’s mining regulators were reluctant to investigate the water pollution complaints against Knife River, instead dismissing those complaints. OPB also found officials ignored reports of other possible permit violations, including when the company buried 31 million pounds of concrete debris at its mine site without disclosing the practice in its state permit.

Crook County residents suspect the mine’s process of digging out sand and gravel from farmland, washing it, then recirculating the wash water through unlined settling ponds, stirred up previously undisturbed contaminants in the groundwater.

Household filtration systems for manganese can run upwards of $15,000, so many residents with concerning test results rely on bottled water for their homes, and still worry about giving well water to their livestock.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality officials said this week they have a plan to test more wells in the area, but who will pay for this plan remains up in the air, and officials aren’t zeroing in on the mine as a suspect.

“As a science-based regulatory agency, we can’t speculate on what the cause of the contamination in the local region is,” DEQ spokesperson Antony Vorobyov said in an interview. “DEQ needs more data.”

Public records obtained by OPB show that another DEQ official, at least initially, found the residents’ theory of the mine’s role credible.

In a March 30, 2023, email, DEQ consultant David Anderson reacted to the evidence collected by a hydrogeologist one of the residents had hired. The hydrogeologist, Jim Newton, sampled water and then analyzed the lab results in a memo that was distributed widely to state officials, including Anderson.

The groundwater contained dissolved elements like iron, manganese and aluminum, Anderson told two colleagues on the email thread: “As the gravel pit opens up/operates, groundwater changes downgradient. … This can enhance the precipitation of iron, manganese and aluminum oxides in downgradient wells.”

This week DEQ spokesperson Vorobyov said multiple factors could be contributing to that groundwater contamination, such as drought caused by climate change. He said the agency has submitted a spending plan to Oregon’s U.S. senators so they can pursue federal funding to collect more data, but it could take a year or more to secure the money.

Merkley has publicly linked the water contamination in Crook County to other instances where the state has paid to test for pollution in Oregon, such as in Morrow and Umatilla Counties, where nitrates from agriculture contaminate thousands of home wells. Last year he and his fellow Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the mine’s alleged role in harming Crook County groundwater quality, but to no avail. Private wells are not regulated under federal clean water laws, the agency responded.

“It’s a state issue,” Merkley told a gaggle of frustrated residents when he toured a couple of homes in the area this week.

“I’ve been collecting different pieces of the information, trying to amplify the attention that the state’s giving to it.”

The senator said he’s been pressing Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek to mobilize health and environmental regulators, and he cast serious doubts on earlier findings of Oregon’s mining regulator, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

“DOGAMI is a captured agency. They work way too closely with the mining industry to be responsible stewards,” Merkley said.

While private wells don’t have the same safeguards as public water supplies, mining sites are not allowed to degrade groundwater.

In 2022, DOGAMI asked Knife River to respond to residents’ pollution complaints, and the agency was satisfied with the company’s explanation that the manganese and aluminum turning up in residents’ water tests was naturally occurring, the result of volcanic geology, or possibly related to historical land uses.

In a statement this week, State Geologist and DOGAMI Director Ruarri Day-Stirrat said the agency has now requested funding “to better understand the role of climate and drought in the unique geological setting of Crook County.”

In a phone call, Day-Stirrat said he’s confident the mine is not the culprit.

The fastest way for people to know what’s in their well water, said Oregon Health Authority toxicologist Dave Farrar, is for them to test it themselves. OHA set up a webpage targeted to affected Crook County residents, with a list of accredited labs.

In March, an attorney representing more than 30 residents filed tort claim notices against local and state governments, threatening to sue Crook County and the Oregon Department of Justice over how officials handled their groundwater complaints amid the mining company’s pursuit of an expansion on nearby farmland.

As for that bid to expand, “the application is in review, and the permit has not yet been drafted,” DOGAMI’s Day-Stirrat said over email.