State sends millions to Eastern Oregon to deal with storm damage, pollution

State sends millions to Eastern Oregon to deal with storm damage, pollution

Residents in Wallowa, Morrow County and Echo will receive additional funds

By:  Antonio Sierra

Whether it was floods, tainted drinking water or a severe hailstorm, the Oregon Legislature's Emergency Board recently approved millions of dollars to address the Eastern Oregon environmental crises of months past.

A joint body of House and Senate members who meet between legislative sessions to approve emergency funding, the Emergency Board approved $2 million to help Wallowa residents repair their homes after a hailstorm ripped through their small town in August.

Wallowa Mayor Gary Hulse remembers the day hailstones ranging in size from "golf balls" to "softballs" began pouring over the town of 800 people.

"Every roof, every window on the west side was destroyed," he said. "My home - I was in there - it blew the windows out on the west side and you had glass and hailstones bouncing into your home. It was a pretty frightening experience for a lot of the people."

As the city's fire chief, Hulse didn’t have much time to react after the ice stopped falling as he needed to respond to emergency calls and fill out damage reports. He said about 10 people were injured by the storm while others still have mental trauma from the experience.

Ahead of the Emergency Board’s meeting on Sept. 23, Gov. Kate Brown publicly backed $2 million in emergency funding for Wallowa.

But when the General Government Subcommittee met to review the project ahead of the Emergency Board meeting, the Legislative Fiscal Office recommended only providing half of the request. Staff told legislators that they wanted to wait until more damage estimates came in from local authorities.

State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, objected.

"The problem is winter is coming," he said.

Nestled in the Wallowa Mountains, the city of Wallowa’s winters are cold and snowy. Without permanent repairs, Hulse said, the tarps and plywood used to cover up holes and gaps in people’s homes would be insufficient in the winter.

With the Emergency Board not meeting again until December, Hansell urged the subcommittee to match the governor’s request. The subcommittee ultimately forwarded the request without recommendation and the full Emergency Board funded it at the full $2 million.

Hulse said the money was a welcome sight, especially for the 20 homes that are uninsured. The next challenge for the community will be finding enough contractors to get the repair work done ahead of the winter. While Wallowa has been able to find some roofers, window and siding contractors have been in short supply.

Nitrates and flooding

The effort to provide clean drinking water to Lower Umatilla Basin residents got a shot in the arm from the Emergency Board as well.

The body approved more than $880,000 to the Oregon Health Authority to provide filters, well testing, educational outreach and staffing costs to address nitrate pollution in the basin, which stretches from northern Morrow County to western Umatilla County.

An excess of nitrates found in groundwater pulled from private wells led Morrow County to declare an emergency earlier this year. Primarily caused by agricultural and industrial sources, nitrates can cause serious health issues if consumed in high quantities.

Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty said he hopes the state will grow its role in addressing the issue while allowing the county to coordinate the outreach effort.

"I think that’s the missing piece," he said.

According to a cost breakdown provided by the Oregon Health Authority, about half the money will go toward tap filters and testing fees for up to 800 wells. The rest will pay to restore a health authority well analyst position that was cut in 2020, and fund positions in Umatilla and Morrow counties for public health outreach and education.

OHA intends to follow up in the 2023 session with a request to permanently fund a domestic well safety program coordinator and address other nitrate issues in the Lower Umatilla Basin.

In the meantime, the state is continuing to fine operations for nitrate pollution. On Tuesday, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced it was levying a six-figure fine to a Hermiston French fry plant.