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Hagens Berman: Lawsuit Accuses Oregon Port, Commercial Farms and Animal Feeding Operation of Contaminating Groundwater, Putting Tens of Thousands of Oregonians at Risk

Law firms say the Lower Umatilla Basin has been adversely affected by wastewater dumping and over-fertilizing

Attorneys at Hagens Berman, Bliven Law Firm and Heenan & Cook filed a new lawsuit accusing the Port of Morrow, large commercial farms and a confined animal feeding operation (CAFOs) of contaminating groundwater in Oregon’s Lower Umatilla Basin by dumping nitrogen onto agricultural fields throughout Morrow and Umatilla Counties. Attorneys estimate the issue affects upwards of 46,000 residents, many of whom are children.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon on Feb. 28, 2024, alleges defendants routinely over-apply commercial fertilizer, animal manure or nitrogen-rich industrial wastewater to fields, and/or allow contaminated wastewater to leach from storage receptacles. It also alleges that defendants who are operating under permits issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) have repeatedly and intentionally violated their permits. For example, the Port of Morrow has been fined for permit violations by the DEQ multiple times, according to attorneys, but it continues to dump more nitrogen-heavy water than its permit allows. Between Nov. 1, 2023, and Jan. 11, 2024, alone, the Port violated its permit at least 395 times, the lawsuit states.

Attorneys say the Port of Morrow, commercial farms, and CAFOs have allegedly contributed to “soaring” levels of nitrates in local groundwater. Excess nitrogen converts to nitrates in the soil. Nitrates are harmful at high levels, especially to infants and pregnant women. Excessive nitrates in water can cause serious health problems including cancer, thyroid dysfunction, miscarriages, and methemoglobinemia, a potentially fatal condition that interferes with infants’ blood oxygen levels.

Those affected include residents who rent, own or reside in Morrow or Umatilla County who rely on either a public water system or residential wells for their drinking water. If you live in Morrow or Umatilla County, Oregon, find out more about your potential rights.

“Our legal team welcomes the opportunity to take swift and thorough action against this behavior,” said Steve Berman, cofounder and managing partner of Hagens Berman. “The Oregon families who have unknowingly endured this should be outraged.”

Hagens Berman’s attorneys include an environmental litigation team with a track record of combating wrongdoing that has polluted and contaminated natural resources. Bliven Law Firm has represented members of the community for over 20 years.

“We Can’t Keep Living Like This.”

One of the lawsuit’s five named plaintiffs, Michael Pearson, had his well tested for nitrates after learning in 2022 that the Morrow County Commission had declared a local state of emergency over groundwater nitrate pollution that compromised drinking water for many Morrow County residents.

According to the lawsuit, results from the test of Mr. Pearson’s well “showed nitrate levels of 46.8 mg/L—over four times the safe limit of 10 mg/L established by EPA, and more than six times the Oregon GMA trigger threshold of 7 mg/L.” Mr. Pearson installed a reverse osmosis filtration system but was still unable to lower nitrate levels in his well to safe levels.

“Right now, just to keep our family safe and access safe water, we buy between six and eight five-gallon water bottles for drinking and cooking every week, and the supplier we rely on to delivery our water has been unreliable,” Mr. Pearson said. “The Port and these commercial farms have placed us and hundreds of other families in an impossible position. We can’t keep living like this.”

Tens of Thousands Affected

Attorneys say more than 45,000 people, including more than 10,000 children, live within the bounds of the Umatilla GMA, and they may be drinking nitrate-contaminated water that could sicken or kill them.

Some of the plaintiffs relying upon well water have used filtration systems, but their water is so contaminated that even after filtration, there are unsafe levels of nitrates in the water, according to the lawsuit. Other plaintiffs have investigated the possibility of digging deeper wells to access uncontaminated water but found that a new well would be cost-prohibitive.

“In the beautiful state of Oregon, no one living in the affected areas of the Lower Umatilla Basin expects the very water they drink and bathe in to contain harmful levels of contaminants,” Berman said. “We seek justice for Oregon’s affected residents.”

Oregon DEQ says 95% of the nitrate pollution in the affected area is attributable to industrial wastewater treatment and disposal, irrigated agriculture and concentrated animal feeding operations.

The lawsuit states that in 1990, the Oregon DEQ declared the Lower Umatilla Basin a groundwater management area (GMA). The affected zone encompasses approximately 562 square miles of land in northern Morrow and Umatilla counties and includes the cities of Boardman, Hermiston, Irrigon, Stanfield and Echo. At least 450 residential wells in the GMA have been tested and found to exceed federal standards for safe nitrate levels.

The lawsuit seeks relief under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to compel the Port of Morrow, commercial farms and CAFOs to conduct assessment and remediation activities necessary to abate the contamination created by their excess wastewater dumping and/or over-application of fertilizer. The lawsuit also brings claims for negligence, trespass, public and private nuisance, and inverse condemnation.

Attorneys seek injunctive relief for those affected that would force defendants to end their contaminating practices, compensatory damages, and the creation of a medical monitoring program to assist affected communities in diagnosing and treating illnesses caused by exposure to excessive nitrates.

Find out more about Hagens Berman’s lawsuit against the Port of Morrow, commercial farms, and CAFOs on behalf of Oregonians dealing with contaminated water.

About Hagens Berman

Hagens Berman is a global plaintiffs’ rights complex litigation law firm with a tenacious drive for achieving real results for those harmed by corporate negligence and fraud. Since its founding in 1993, the firm’s determination has earned it numerous national accolades, awards and titles of “Most Feared Plaintiff’s Firm,” MVPs and Trailblazers of class-action law. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.


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