City officials are upset their efforts to attract industry are being thwarted by the not-so-sweet smell of agricultural success.

“The city of Irrigon and west toward the sewage-irrigated fields is the worst location,” said John Sebastian, principal of A.C. Houghton Elementary School. “Sometimes it is so bad you almost gag.”

The Sebastians live about 1.5 miles south of town, just outside the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

“We only get the smell once in a while,” he said.

The two principal sources of the odors are pointing fingers at each other, saying the other is most responsible.

Irrigon Mayor David Burns and City Manager Jerry Breazeale blame the Port of Morrow and a nearby farmer. The port irrigates crops with industrial process wastewater, and Hermiston farmer Alan Cleaver applies organic fertilizer to his crops.

In a Sept. 1 letter to Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow, Burns said he had met with Duane Smith of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in Pendleton about the “horrible stench.” He said it comes over Irrigon, particularly in the spring and fall.

“You have been aware of this terrible odor for many years,” he wrote to Neal, “but very little has been done to mitigate it.”

The odor is more than a nuisance, Burns said.

“As you can imagine, people who visit our town during the times when the odor is present have no interest in siting a business here or moving to Irrigon,” he wrote.

Neal replied in mid-September, saying the port is working to improve its “management of the various waste streams that contribute to odor.” He cited improvements at the Lamb Weston and Oregon Potato Co. plants. He also listed improvements the port had completed to reduce odors and plans for more improvements next summer.

Despite the port’s efforts to reduce odors from its irrigation circles, Neal said most of the offensive odors come from the private farms that use organic fertilizer.

“Irrigon is uniquely situated so there are a lot of organic center pivots nearby,” he said in a recent interview. “They use chicken manure.”

Cleaver said he’s not heard from the city of Irrigon, but he has talked with a DEQ representative who asked about his fertilizer applications after receiving a compliant from city officials.

The chicken manure is piled and covered with a tarp, he said. It’s usually spread on some fields in the spring or fall, then worked into the soil the next day.

“Our deal is pretty short-lived,” Cleaver said, “normally in fall and winter.”

Much of Cleaver’s cropland is closer to Irrigon than the land where the port applies industrial wastewater. All of the port’s irrigation circles are west of Paterson Ferry Road, about three miles west of Irrigon.

The port, however, has a real problem, Cleaver said, and it originates upwind of his organic fields. It’s not so much the port’s irrigation of the industrial wastewater, he said, but the storage of slurry in huge ponds.

“They’re definitely giving us a lot of smell,” he said.

Neal said the port has been responsive to the odor complaints it has received.

“We repeatedly were notified of odors in the spring,” Neal wrote to Burns. “Each time we tracked the odors and nine out of 10 times, it was a direct connection to organic fields we have nothing to do with.”

Each time, Neal wrote, the port notified the city and the DEQ “and it felt like the city ignored our information.”

Breazeale acknowledged Neal’s letter with an e-mail, and asked if he and Burns could discuss the wastewater issue with the port commission. Neal replied that he and Marv Padberg, port commission president, would be glad to discuss the matter with them. That was Sept. 20.

In late October, Breazeale sent an e-mail to a number of Irrigon-area residents and Morrow County public officials. It encouraged them to call the Port of Morrow and a DEQ official to complain about the odor, and included phone numbers.

The e-mail did not include the numbers of the organic farms.

“We are aware of two sources of the odor,” he wrote. “One is from the Port of Morrow’s irrigation of industrial process wastewater and the other is from manure that has been applied to crops as organic fertilizer. To some, it may be difficult to tell the difference. Really though, most people don’t care which source it is coming from, they just want it to stop.”

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