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

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

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

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

“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

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