The Port of Morrow, the state’s second busiest port, is facing a new contamination violation in eastern Oregon that may have been ongoing for some time.
The breach is linked to a port sewage spill in an area plagued by years of water pollution from the port and other sources. The Department of Environmental Quality, which has stood by for years, is now negotiating a settlement with the port over past violations.
DEQ appears to have acted slowly again, waiting weeks for two people to complain about the spill.
The agency that regulates the port’s sewage system asked the port about the leak in mid-January after a second local resident complained to the agency that they had heard of a leak or seen water pooling around the port’s main line collected. DEQ officials asked port officials on the day they received the second complaint whether their main line, which carries contaminated water from their industrial facilities in Boardman to nearby storage ponds, was leaking onto an already contaminated aquifer.
Port officials confirmed the leak and within days temporarily shut down the port’s sewage system, repaired the leak and began cleaning up the contaminated area.
According to Laura Gleim, a DEQ spokeswoman, port officials told DEQ that they were hearing about the leak for the first time.
However, an investigation by the Capital Chronicle revealed that the port had known about this for some time and had failed to inform DEQ, in violation of the port’s sewage permit.
“It would be a breach 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 caused any harm to residents, DEQ said. Thousands in the county have been exposed to well water contaminated with nitrates from harbor sewage and agricultural sources for years.
The port admitted the mistake on Wednesday, when Lisa Mittelsdorf, the port’s chief executive, told DEQ she knew about the leak before fixing it, according to Gleim. In January, the port told DEQ officials its inspectors thought it was snowmelt, Gleim told the Capital Chronicle.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Gleim told the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday.
Video courtesy of Nella Parks, captured December 14, 2022
The breach is the port’s third in just over a year. The company is already facing fines of more than $2 million for allowing too much of its nitrate-laden wastewater to be spread over fields in northeast Oregon for years, further contaminating an aquifer that supports thousands of people in depend on counties Morrow and Umatilla for drinking water.
“We are currently working on a settlement and that is an additional violation that will be taken into account,” Gleim said.
She didn’t return follow-up calls asking for more information until late Wednesday night, and Mittelsdorf didn’t respond to emailed questions about why the port didn’t report the leak earlier or how long port officials had known the pipe was leaking. Mittelsdorf also did not answer questions about the leak in February.
It’s unclear when the leak started. Local residents told the Capital Chronicle it could be dated 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 this road to work and home, so I drive by it twice a day, every day,” he said.
He described it as a pool 6 to 8 feet wide. He wasn’t worried until he read the signs on purple and green stakes in the spot that said, “Beware. Industrial waste water.”
As part of its sewage permit, the port is required to visually inspect its sewage system on a daily basis and identify any irregularities. Officials must make them available to DEQ upon request. Leaks or violations of the permit must be reported within 24 hours. None of these reports, submitted to the DEQ after the leak was found Jan. 12-18, relate to a leak or pool water. DEQ first contacted the port on January 18 about the leak.
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 whose wells are contaminated with nitrates. Alarmed by the leak, Pearson photographed the site and sent it to Nella Parks, a senior organizer with the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action, Parks said.
Parks alerted DEQ on December 2.
“I’m hearing reports that port sewage is either being dumped or spilling onto private property and there are leaks in the sewer lines,” Parks said in an email to Mike Hiatt, a regional DEQ specialist. “Are you aware of that?”
Hiatt forwarded the email to Justin Sterger, the author of the regional water quality permit, who said he hadn’t heard of a leak at the port, according to an email he sent to Hiatt.
Sterger sent Parks a link to a DEQ portal for filing pollution complaints, but Parks did not file one. Neither Hiatt nor Sterger have contacted the port about the leak, Gleim, the DEQ spokeswoman, told the Capital Chronicle.
Hiatt now regrets failing to move on. Hiatt said he only started his job in August and wasn’t quite sure what to do when Parks emailed.
“I regret not contacting the port immediately afterwards,” he said.
According to Gleim, DEQ receives about 5,000 pollution and emergency notification complaints each year. She said the agency is taking immediate action.
This happened on January 18, the day a member of the public anonymously filed a formal pollution complaint with photos through the DEQ portal.
In response to the sewer line leak, the port dug up potentially contaminated soil for testing and disposal. (port of tomorrow)
Port engineers said the pipe leaked between 5 and 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 of the pipe, the port’s leak report said.
“Age, speed, type of water with high silt content are all good theories as to why this fitting failed,” the report said. “There were no unusual activities or uses that led to the leak notice.”
The leak was not near any residential areas, and groundwater below it does not flow into community centers or private wells, Gleim said.
She said the port plans to fully replace the pipe in 2023.
This article is courtesy of the Oregon Capital Chronicle, click Here to view it in its original form.
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