Perhaps the biggest news of 2022 was how the coronavirus pandemic ebbed in news coverage. The East Oregonian, then, does not have a top 10 list dedicated to just the virus, the disease and the fallout it caused.
We derived our top 10 news stories of the year from analytics about what was popular online as well as discussion about what was newsworthy.
We have major events in the list. The massive pileup of crashes in February on Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon, fires destroying the flour mill in Pendleton and Shearer’s Foods in Hermiston and a record environmental fine against the Port of Morrow in Boardman that shined the spotlight on the serious problem of contaminated drinking wells. The list also showcases community ire and local economic development.
Here, then, are the top 10 news stories the East Oregonian reported on in 2022.
No. 10: Hermiston apartment complex offers buyouts to tenants
HERMISTON — Residents of a 46-unit apartment complex in Hermiston in early February had to find new places to live.
The new owner of the apartment complex, Clover Housing Group LLC, notified residents in a letter they would have to move. The company also offered $2,000 to tenants who could vacate by March 1. And the letters stated tenants would receive a full refund of their security deposits, “as long as the apartment is reasonably clean.”
Isaac Pulido received the letter. A Highland Manor tenant since December 2020, he lived in an apartment with two beds and one bath and paid $630 per month in rent, he said.
Pulido reported feeling “stressed out” by his situation, as there are not many available places to live in Hermiston.
“Two-thousand dollars will cover most security deposits in this area and moving costs, but it won’t help with those families who are in need of affordable housing but don’t quite make the margin for low-income housing,” he said.
Mike Atkinson, owner of Clover Housing, said he sympathized with his tenants, but he has big plans for the apartments.
“They’re old apartments,” he said. “They need a facelift.”
No. 9: Pendleton School District dumps Mid Columbia Bus Co.
PENDLETON — The Pendleton School District’s 40-year relationship with Mid Columbia Bus Co. came to an end in February.
The Pendleton School Board on Monday, Feb. 14, approved a bid from First Student, a Cincinnati, Ohio, school bus company, to take over the district student transportation services for the next five years. Midco, the only other bidder for the contract, was the runner-up.
Michelle Jones, the district’s director of business services, said this was the first time Pendleton had put its school bus contract up for bid. Districts aren’t required to solicit bidders for transportation contracts, but Jones said school officials felt it was something they owed their constituencies.
Recent years haven’t always gone smoothly for Midco.
Pendleton parents frequently complained of late buses, long routes and unchecked bullying on the buses. Some of those complaints filtered up to the school board level, where Midco representatives attributed the shortcomings to a nationwide bus driver shortage. Last summer, Midco attempted to revamp its recruitment strategy by upping bus driver wages.
First Student stated it could provide its services for $795,831 per year plus rate based fees that vary depending on bus usage.
Midco’s bid was $645,721 per year plus rate based fees.
First Student took over bus services on July 1.
No. 8: Spring flooding affects Pendleton residents, businesses
PENDLETON — Tutuilla and Patawa creeks near and through Pendleton crested their banks Sunday, May 29, flooding yards and businesses and prompting the city to close access to roads.
The National Weather Service in Pendleton on May 28 issued a flood watch for much of Northeastern Oregon due to hours and hours of steady rainfall, which swelled area creeks and filled McKay Reservoir. The NWS on May 29 reported .74 inches of rain at Pendleton’s Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.
The crew at Kelly Lumber Supply Inc., 1211 Tutuilla Road, hustled to move trailers from the back of their property where rushing water was more than 2 feet deep.
Jason Kelly waded out into the stream flowing along the property to install a battery on a fifth-wheel trailer to get its hydraulics working. The effort proved fruitful, and he and his son, Jaden Villa, were able to hook up the trailer to a Dodge Ram pickup and haul it out of the flood.
High waters surrounded nearby homes on the west side of Tutuilla Road, where Makayla Lee and some friends stacked gravel bags to mitigate the flood.
Lee said she has lived at this site for the last two years and the flooding in 2020 was not nearly so bad on Tutuilla and Patawa creeks.
No. 7: Hermiston High School irks community with dress code enforcement
HERMISTON — The first day of the new school year for Hermiston High School came with controversy as teachers and staff stopped 62 students for dress code violations.
The actions at the school prompted seniors Adriana Gutierrez and Piper Snyder to start an online petition to change the code. As of Friday, Dec. 23, the petition has gathered 2,877 digital signatures.
But the enforcement also raised the concerns and hackles of parents, who blasted Hermiston School District administrators and the school board.
“You’re not teaching these kids anything,” one mother told the board. “You’re telling girls to sit down, shut up and be told what to do by males. And that’s just not appropriate.”
Snyder was one of the speakers at that meeting. She said this issue is beyond students wanting to wear a crop-top to school.
“Girls have been publicly shamed, laughed at and taken away from their learning multiple times in the span of two weeks just because of what they chose to wear to school,” she told the board.
Rather than enforcing the dress code, she said, the school is teaching girls they have to be responsible for boys’ actions while not teaching boys they need to respect girls.
Her father, Michael Snyder, said he thinks the dress code issue comes down to Title IX and equity. Title IX is the most commonly used name for the federal civil rights law in the United States that was enacted as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. It prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or any other education program that receives funding from the federal government.
Hermiston High School Principal Tom Spoo never replied to requests for comments.
No. 6: Pendleton hotel developments takes off
PENDLETON — Hotel development in Pendleton had a good year thanks in large measure to public money sparking private investment.
The Marigold Hotel in the city’s downtown regained new life with a new owner and management. And the former Knight’s Inn now is the MotoLodge, also with a new owner and management. Both developments involved funding from the Pendleton Development Commission.
True Holdings LLC, of Clackamas, is redeveloping The Marigold into extended stay lodgings. The project cost to True Holdings is approximately $3.7 million to $4 million, with purchase price of $1.5 million, remodeling expense of $2.2 million and the costs of furnishings, according to a report to the commission from Charles Denight, Pendleton urban renewal associate director.
Cascadia Hospitality bought the Knight’s Inn in late 2021. The company’s $1.3 million renovation transformed a relic from times past into a new boutique hotel, the MotoLodge.
The PDC provided $500,000 grants to both projects as well as a $100,000 Jump Start loan for the Motolodge, which it must pay back the loan in three years with a 3% interest rate.
Sidney True of True Holdings said the PDC grant was the essential component of the project.
“In a nutshell, the whole thing would not have happened without the PDC grant,” he said. “The grant gave us the confidence to close the deal to buy the property.”
One more hotel also opened in Pendleton in 2022: The Radisson next to the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport.
No. 5: Morrow County recalls two commissioners
HEPPNER — Morrow County voters on Nov. 29 recalled two of the three members of the board of county commissioners.
Jim Doherty lost 1,339 to 1,174, and Melissa Lindsay lost 1,265 to 1,244.
Voters in the past year took exception to the pair voting to fire the county’s emergency manager, Darrell Green, who subsequently is suing the county for $750,000, claiming wrongful termination.
Some residents also were not happy with how the two did not support the Boardman Fire and Rescue’s effort to provide ambulance service, which competed with the service the Morrow County Health District provided. Doherty also may not have won a lot of fans for the spotlight he stood in when it came to testing Boardman-area wells for nitrate contamination.
In December, Doherty and Lindsay hired Salem lawyers to represent them to contest the validity of the election. The chief complaint alleged Morrow County Clerk Bobbi Childers violated Oregon elections law when she sent the recall ballots Nov. 4. Instead, the lawyers asserted, Childers should have sent recall ballots between Nov. 9 and Nov. 15, after the general election. Mailing the recall ballots while the general election was underway goes against Oregon law, according to the attorneys, and “created widespread voter confusion.”
The attorneys for Doherty and Lindsay gave Childers two choices: Decline certification or seek a court order for a new recall election.
Childers certified the election Tuesday, Dec. 27. Doherty and Lindsay said they were not likely to press a legal case.
No. 4: Crashes stretch almost 2 miles on Interstate 84 in Eastern Oregon
PENDLETON — Winter conditions Feb. 21 contributed to a series of crashes on Interstate 84 about 21 miles east of Pendleton that involved hundreds of travelers and a massive emergency response.
Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Transportation reported the wrecks stretched 1.75 miles and involved more than 170 vehicles. The crashes shut down the westbound and eastbound lanes of the freeway in Eastern Oregon.
OSP reported 17 patients were transported from the crash scene with an additional two who were transported after they arrived at the Pendleton Convention Center, which served as a reunification hub for people in the crash.
Officers at the scene heard crashes occurring behind them, OSP reported. Carter Hyatt and his family were returning to their home in Washington when their vehicle became part of the wrecks. The Hyatts also heard those crashes.
“Bam, bam, bam,” Carter Hyatt said. “They just kept hitting.”
St. Anthony Hospital communications director Emily Smith said the hospital received 13 patients. Of those patients, 10 were treated and released, two were admitted but later discharged and one was transferred to another hospital.
School buses took groups from the crashes to the Pendleton Convention Center, where staff provided rooms for people to wait for rides from family or friends or made arrangements for other accommodations.
The Hyatts said they had never experienced anything like this emergency, and they did not want to be in another.
Between the crash early afternoon Feb. 21 and early morning Feb. 22, OSP reported six tow companies removed the dozens of vehicles that had accumulated on the snowy road. The eastbound lanes reopened at about midnight, but the westbound lanes were not clear until about 6 a.m.
No. 3: Shearers’ Foods explodes, burns down in Hermiston
HERMISTON — Dozens of firefighters from multiple agencies the afternoon of Feb. 22 worked to quell a fierce blaze at Shearer’s Foods off Highway 207 in Hermiston.
“This was a big fire for us,” Fire District No. 1 Chief Scott Stanton said. “Probably haven’t had a fire this size in the last decade.”
A total of 60 firefighters from Fire District No. 1 and eight other agencies responded. The blaze destroyed the facility, but firefighters kept the fire from spreading. Some Shearer’s employees left by foot to meet nearby friends and loved ones for rides.
“It felt like a hurricane or a tornado came throughout the whole warehouse,” Shearer’s forklift operator Nick Perez said. “It blew dust everywhere. I saw the roof collapse. There was a bunch of fire. That’s when everyone evacuated.”
A natural gas portable boiler had exploded and started the blaze that would destroy the plant. Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 reported 73 employees evacuated. Six were injured and taken to Good Shepherd Medical Center, Hermiston, where they were treated and released.
Shearer’s Foods employed 230 at the site. The company decided not to rebuild the plant.
Shearer’s Foods CEO Bill Nictakis announced on March 8 the company was “exploring opportunities to relocate team members interested in working in our other plants” and has “provided a severance and benefits continuation package to recognize the effort and tenure that has gone into making the site successful over the past years.”
The Hermiston nonprofit Agape House held a food drive for Shearer’s employees. Agape House Director Mark Gomolski said the event provided food to 127 Shearer’s families.
Hermiston Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan expressed confidence the displaced laborers would find new work.
“I know there’s been significant interest from employers looking to hire some of these folks coming out of the Shearer’s facility,” he said.
According to the Shearer’s Foods website, the Hermiston plant, which opened in 2010, was the company’s only production facility in the Pacific Northwest.
No. 2: Fire destroys Pendleton flour mill
PENDLETON — Fire erupted early Aug. 10 at the Grain Craft flour mill in Pendleton. By midmorning, first responders were waiting for the possible collapse of the structure.
Pendleton Assistant Fire Chief Tony Pierotti said this blaze kicked off at about 4:30 a.m., and all signs point to the massive structure as a total loss. Silos were at full capacity of finished grain, so the fire fuel load was extreme.
Fighting the flames took the combined effort of the Pendleton Fire Department, Umatilla Tribal Fire Department, Umatilla County Fire District No. 1 and more.
Buildings at the mill began to collapse around 9:30 a.m. Pendleton fire was not sending in people because the risk of collapse was too high.
The fire burned for weeks inside, sometimes flaring up to the point firefighters again had to douse flames.
Pendleton Fire Chief Jim Critchley in a statement Oct. 5 reported the Oregon State Fire Marshal completed its investigation of the blaze and classified the fire as “undetermined … accidental in nature.”
The fire department has been in contact with the Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and with Grain Craft, owner of the mill, about the plans going forward.
Demolition of the burned-out flour mill began in earnest the morning of Dec. 13 as crews from NorthStar Demolition and Remediation Inc. started to take down the building.
“The whole thing is going to take a couple of weeks,” Lou Hannemann, senior operations officer with NorthStar, and site manager for the flour mill demolition explained.
Critchley said the city and NorthStar demolition have cooperated to ensure the building could be brought down safely and without presenting a danger to residents.
No. 1: Fine of Port of Morrow highlights contaminated water crisis
BOARDMAN — The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 11 announced it fined the Port of Morrow in Boardman $1.3 million for repeatedly over-applying agricultural wastewater on nearby farms in an area with elevated levels of groundwater nitrates.
Port of Morrow Executive Director Ryan Neal said the port takes the matter seriously and was working to develop a long-term solution to the problem for the benefit of port industries, local farmers and the region.
Neal suffered a heart attack and died Jan. 17. He was 40.
The Port of Morrow is Oregon’s second-largest port, behind only the Port of Portland. It is in the Umatilla Basin of Northeastern Oregon, where in 1990 the state declared a groundwater management area due to high levels of groundwater nitrates exceeding 7 milligrams per liter.
Investigative reporting revealed the DEQ knowingly let the port pollute year after year, contributing to drinking water contamination for thousands.
The reporting showed the port from 2007-09 violated its wastewater application permit 42 times, applying an excess of 3,670 pounds of nitrogen per acre on fields across three farms. The DEQ imposed no fine.
Research from the National Cancer Institute reports consuming water with nitrate up to even 5 parts per million over long periods of time can increase the risk of colon cancer, stomach cancer and several other cancers.
DEQ in 2015 fined the port $129,000 for violations in 2012-14 as the port again sought to expand acreage for its disposal program. A fine of $8,400 came in 2016 for building a wastewater storage pond without state permission.
Between 2018 and 2021, regulators found the port violated its water quality permit more than 1,000 times by regularly over-applying the recycled water on fields growing crops such as corn, potatoes and onions.
Morrow County on June 9 declared an emergency in response to contaminated drinking water and distributed bottled water to affected residents. The DEQ on June 17 announced it increased the $1.3 million penalty to a little more than $2.1 million.
The county began installing 350 water filters in homes for Boardman area residents who relied on well water. More than 100 Boardman residents attended a meeting Sept. 15 to demand the state guarantee access to safe drinking water in Morrow County.
An interpreter read testimony from Maria Elena Martinez, a mother of six, who suffered two miscarriages in recent years. Her tap water was tested and came back with a result of 26 parts per million of nitrate, more than double the safe legal limit.
“No one had ever warned me about the danger,” she said. “Something must be done to protect our communities.”
The outcry over the nitrate pollution spurred the DEQ on Nov. 4 to appoint new members for the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area committee to address the mounting concerns about hazardous nitrate contamination in local drinking water.
The port on Dec. 2 announced the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality granted a modification to the port’s permit for using industrial wastewater. To comply with the permit, the port has to complete major wastewater infrastructure upgrades, including building new wastewater storage lagoons with a 1.5-billion-gallon capacity by Nov. 1, 2026.
The port reported it would invest $150 million to $200 million to comply with a modified permit for using industrial wastewater.
Port of Morrow Executive Director Lisa Mittelsdorf said the port is responsible for having created a small amount of local nitrate pollution. Even so, she said, the port is “committed to cleaning up our water” and is committed to good stewardship.
“I think the message we want to send is that our industry is well aware of the commitments that the port will be making and that we intend to get this done,” she said.