Sen. Jeff Merkley visits Morrow County, discusses high nitrate levels in water

MORROW COUNTY – Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley met Sunday,
Jan. 15, with homeowners in Boardman and Irrigon to discuss high nitrate levels
in private wells across Morrow County.

“It first came up in a town hall, a county commissioner
raised it,” he said. “I was familiar with the issue of nitrates in
the midwest being a problem. It immediately rang bells of concern for me. Now
we have the money to really come to understand the scope of the nitrate problem
and hopefully get some planning toward the right solution.”

After months of research by his team, Merkley, a Democrat,
was able to use collected data to procure a $1.7 million in a federal grant to
investigate the full scale of the nitrate contamination and to find a workable

“You have to start by understanding the scope of the
problem,” Merkley said. “How many families are affected? Can you
drill a well deep enough to get to a water level that’s not contaminated with
nitrates? Can you run the city water out to these homes? Are we talking about
40 families or 400 families, both within the urban growth boundary or outside
of it? This is at least a really serious step toward setting the stage for a

The Oregon Health Authority states that nitrate levels must
be below 10 parts-per-million, or 10 milligrams per liter, or can result in an
increased risk of recurring respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction and
negative reproductive outcomes, such as spontaneous abortion and
methemoglobinemia, the so-called “blue baby syndrome.” High nitrate
levels also can contribute to increased cancer rates, particularly stomach and
bladder cancers.

Some homeowners in Boardman and Irrigon have had their wells
tested with nitrate levels above 50 parts per million, more than five times the
danger threshold.

“We are really thankful that Merkley was aware of the
issue and has already gone to Congress to get $1.7 million for basic research
to look for a long-term source of safe water,” Oregon Rural Action
Executive Director Kristin Anderson said. “That’s long term. Right now we
need Gov. (tina) Kotek to come here and make sure that people can have water
until testing shows if the people’s wells are safe to tap.”

Anderson and Oregon Rural Action have focused their
attention on working with local residents to build a complete picture of the
problem. Anderson estimated only 14% of wells that should be tested have been,
and that has resulted in 171 homes requiring water delivery from their cities.

“We need to have government contact and make sure that
people can have safe water now,” Anderson said. “We need free water
deliveries until the testing of the well shows that the water is safe. We need
enough water for basic drinking, cooking and brushing your teeth.”

Mike Pearson owns a home in Boardman and was Merkley’s first
stop. Pearson said he has lived on the property for 30 years and has installed
filters and a reverse osmosis system to bring down the nitrate levels in his
well. Despite those efforts, his well still tests at a nitrate level of 46
parts per million.

“It comes from the food manufacturers,” Pearson
said. “When they process things like potatoes, it’s the chemicals that
come off the taters, water from the processing plants, stuff like that, that’s
where the nitrates come from. The nitrates get into the wastewater of the
plant, and it gets dumped. We’ve had wastewater bubbling out in fields for over
two years.”

He now is working with a group of neighbors and Oregon Rural
Action to bring the issue before Kotek, explaining that gubernatorial
intervention is long overdue.

“The state has known about the nitrate levels for over
30 years,” Anderson said. “The federal government got involved three
years ago. So we’ve been waiting for three years, waiting for 30 years to clean
up this water so we can finally drink safely. You know, we need to grow food.
We need these jobs, but we also need clean water, and it’s going to be
complicated to find the long-term solution.”

In hopes of progressing toward a solution, Merkley committed
to bringing a letter from the Boardman community addressed to the governor
regarding the issue and bringing his concerns over nitrate contamination to her

“There are solutions to this,” Merkley said.
“Let’s find out the full of this issue and figure out what will work best