Port of Morrow allows thousands of gallons of wastewater to leak and fails to alert DEQ

The Port of Morrow, the state’s second-largest port, faces a new violation over contamination in eastern Oregon that may have been going on for some time.

The violation is linked to a spill of port wastewater in an area reeling from years of water contamination from the port and other sources. The Department of Environmental Quality, which failed for years to act, is now negotiating a settlement with the port over previous violations

DEQ appears to have been slow to act again, waiting weeks until two people complained about the spill.

The agency, which regulates the port’s wastewater system, asked the port about the leak in mid-January after a second area resident complained to the agency that they’d heard about a leak or seen pooling water around the port’s main pipeline. DEQ officials asked port officials the day it received the second complaint whether its main pipeline carrying contaminated water from its industrial facilities in Boardman to nearby storage ponds was leaking atop an already contaminated aquifer.

Port officials acknowledged the leak, and within days temporarily shut down the port’s wastewater system, repaired the leak and began cleaning up the contaminated area.

Port officials told DEQ that it was the first time they had heard about the leak, according to Laura Gleim, a DEQ spokesperson.

But an investigation by the Capital Chronicle found the port had known about it for some time and had not informed DEQ, violating the port’s wastewater permit.

“It would be a violation if the port knew about it and didn’t report it to us within 24 hours,” Gleim told the Capital Chronicle in a February email.

The leak occurred in an industrial area and does not appear to have harmed residents, DEQ said. Thousands in the county have been exposed for years to well water contaminated with nitrates from port wastewater and agricultural sources. 

The port acknowledged the lapse on Wednesday when Lisa Mittelsdorf, the port’s executive director, told DEQ it had known about the leak before fixing it, according to Gleim. In January, the port told DEQ officials that its inspectors thought it was snowmelt, Gleim told the Capital Chronicle.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” Gleim told the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday.

allowing too much of its nitrate-laden wastewater to be spread over northeast Oregon fields for years, further contaminating an aquifer that thousands of people in Morrow and Umatilla counties rely on for drinking water. 

“We are currently working through a settlement, and this is an additional violation, so it will be taken into account,” Gleim said.

She did not answer follow-up calls seeking more information by late Wednesday night, and Mittelsdorf did not answer emailed questions about why the port did not report the leak earlier or for how long port officials knew the pipe was leaking. Mittelsdorf also did not answer questions about the leak in February.

Earliest reports

It’s unclear when the leak started. Residents told the Capital Chronicle that it could have dated to last spring.   

Ryan McComb, who works at an Amazon data center at the port, said he first saw a large pool of dark and milky water near his workplace in May. 

“I take that road to work and to go home, so I drive by it every day, twice a day,” he said. 

He described it as a 6- to 8-foot-wide pool. He wasn’t concerned until he read the signs on purple and green stakes at the site that said: “Caution. Industrial Waste Water.”

wastewater system daily and note irregularities. Officials must provide them to DEQ upon request. Any leaks or violations of the permit need to be reported within 24 hours. None of these reports supplied to DEQ after the leak was found, from Jan. 12 to 18, reference a leak or pooling water. DEQ first contacted the port about the leak on Jan. 18.

In August, McComb said he noticed earth movers and workers near the spill. 

In November, he told his grandfather, Mike Pearson, about the pool. Pearson is one of hundreds of people in Boardman with wells contaminated by nitrates. Alarmed about the leak, Pearson photographed the site and sent them to Nella Parks, a senior organizer with the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action, Parks said. 

Parks alerted DEQ on Dec. 2.

“I am hearing reports that port wastewater is either being dumped or running onto private ground and that there are leaks in the waste water pipes,” Parks said in an email to Mike Hiatt, a regional DEQ specialist. “Are you aware of this?”

Hiatt forwarded the email to the regional water quality permit writer, Justin Sterger, who said he had not heard about a leak from the port, according to an email he sent to Hiatt. 

Sterger sent Parks a link to a DEQ portal for submitting pollution complaints, but Parks did not submit one. Neither Hiatt nor Sterger contacted the port about the leak, Gleim, the DEQ spokeswoman, told the Capital Chronicle. 

Hiatt now regrets failing to follow up. Hiatt said he had just started his job in August and wasn’t entirely sure what to do when Parks emailed. 

“I do regret not reaching out to the port right after that,” he said.

January report

DEQ receives about 5,000 pollution complaints and emergency spill reports each year, Gleim said. She said the agency acts promptly.

It did on Jan. 18, the day a member of the public anonymously filed a formal pollution complaint through the DEQ portal with photos. 

Port engineers said the pipe leaked between 5 to 50 gallons of contaminated water per minute, according to correspondence between the port and DEQ. They show the port sucked at least 6,000 gallons of water from the pools on Jan. 23. 

The leak was due to an old fitting on an elbow joint of the pipe, the port’s leak report said. 

“Age, velocity, type of water with high silts, are all good theories for why this fitting failed,” the report said. “There was no unusual activities or uses leading to the leak note.”

The leak was not near residential areas, and the groundwater beneath it does not flow toward population centers or private wells, Gleim said.

She said the port plans to fully replace the pipe in 2023.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.