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‘It’s a call to action:’ Senators back Crook County Knife River mine neighbors on DEQ addressing groundwater concerns

(Update: adding video, comments from Ed Fitch, Senator Jeff Merkley)

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) -- Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley say they support the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's moves to address concerns raised by Crook County commissioners and residents regarding Knife River's wastewater permit for a mine near Prineville and possible groundwater contamination.

Meanwhile, an attorney for mine neighbors, claiming worsening manganese contamination of their wells, filed notice last week they may sue the county and state for not shutting down the mine.

“(Crook County) residents have continued to raise concerns over unsafe drinking water and potential health impacts to humans including skin rashes, as well as health impacts to livestock and domestic animals, including unexplained deaths of cows and chickens,” the senators wrote in a letter last week to DEQ Director Leah Feldon.

NewsChannel 21 reported nearly a year ago that two-dozen neighbors of a mine northwest of Prineville and their attorney, Ed Fitch, claimed the mining operations have contaminated their water.

A state agency and Knife River said last year that their well test samples found no evidence the aggregate mine off Stahancyk Lane caused those problems.

Fitch, a Redmond attorney and mayor, told NewsChannel 21 this week that in the year since our first report, there’s been much more evidence of contamination from manganese on surrounding properties, reports of deaths of livestock.

"At first it was just a few neighbors fairly close to it," Fitch said Wednesday. "And now it's becoming more of a widespread (issue), with -- I mean, we're getting close to 50 people who have significant concerns about their groundwater."

"A number of cows that have died alone," he added. "The problem is growing, instead of stabilizing. And Knife River wants to open another five acres to mining."

He says people are using bottled water for drinking, but there isn't a good practical solution to the contaminated water.

Fitch says they've asked the county to conduct a hearing and revoke the company's mining permit, alleging they misrepresented the issues with groundwater.

In tort claim notices delivered to the county and state a week ago on behalf of over 30 mine neighbors, Fitch advised a lawsuit would accuse them of letting Knife River continue mining “when there is clear evidence that (it) is causing significant groundwater contamination that has caused damages to adjoining property owners.”

Fitch says he believes a class-action lawsuit will be filed with another firm that handles those types of cases.

In their letter to the DEQ, Wyden and Merkley noted that elevated levels of manganese and aluminum can hurt community health, especially for vulnerable people.

Merkley told NewsChannel 21, "When a community suddenly has a problem shared by many residents and you've got black sludge coming out of your pipes, it's a call to action. And we need to help those community members in every possible way."

The senators also wrote that DEQ has a crucial responsibility to exercise oversight authority under its interagency agreement with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) to protect Crook County residents who rely on this aquifer as the primary source of their drinking water.

“We are encouraged to learn the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has heard these concerns and will be working with the community and the Oregon Health Authority on a plan for sampling and analysis of the wells. We stand ready as federal partners to support these efforts,” the senators concluded.   

DEQ shared this statement on the status of their involvement with NewsChannel 21 Thursday morning.

"DEQ shares the senators’ concerns and is committed to ongoing coordination with partner agencies and Crook County to develop a monitoring plan and further understanding the issues the community is facing. DEQ will be participating in a planning meeting this week to prepare for a community meeting, likely to be held in the spring.

"Oregon Health Authority and DEQ are working to determine the details of a monitoring plan, including locations, analytes, how long the monitoring will occur, etc. The first round of sampling could occur approximately two months after the community meeting, assuming funding becomes available and we can hire a contractor to do the field work," the agency said.  

Merkley said, "So that will not depend upon samples provided by the mining company. They'll do their own independent testing upon establishing the presence of manganese, which I'm quite certain they will find."

Knife River also provided us with a statement last week:

"Knife River is committed to environmental stewardship and welcomes participation from the DEQ in the ongoing groundwater testing in the Prineville area. Our operations are compliant and fully permitted, with water sampling and testing repeatedly confirming our operations have had no impacts on water quality. Crook County's geology is well known to feature elevated levels of many minerals, including manganese. We hope the continued interest in the area’s groundwater helps improve public understanding of the county’s unique geology."

A copy of the letter is here and below.

Article Topic Follows: Crook County

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Jillian Fortner

Jillian Fortner is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Jillian here.

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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