UMATILLA COUNTY — Historically, when the East Oregonian has compiled top-10 stories of the year lists, it has polled the staff on the top stories and compiled the list based on those results. When we went down that path, it was apparent that the voting was for stories two through 10, because there is no question what the year’s top story would be — the COVID-19 pandemic.
That left stories like the February flooding that ravaged Umatilla County, summer protests in Hermiston and Pendleton, the sudden death of a Pendleton city councilor and the permanent closure of the Boardman Generating Station competing for space with COVID-19 stories on the list.
With that in mind, we decided to split the list in two and have top-10 COVID-19 stories and a non-COVID list. There were no shortage of stories to choose from in 2020.
Here are the top non-pandemic stories that helped shape 2020 for Umatilla and Morrow counties.
1. Umatilla River overflows its banks
Nate Fuller, left, and Archie Morrow await rescue on the roof of a home in Thorn Hollow on Feb. 6, 2020. The pair was stranded when they attempted to rescue the elderly couple that was stuck in the house as waters from the Umatilla River began to rise. According to a family member of one of those stranded, all four people were rescued by 9:40 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2020
A 100-year flood is an extreme event that only has a 1% chance of happening each year.
In the 1990s, authorities calculated the 100-year flood level on the Umatilla River was 22,500 cubic feet per second, about 7,000 cfs higher than the record high. In early February, a combination of heavy rain and rapidly melting snow in the Blue Mountains pushed the river’s cfs to 28,900, a figure attached to a flood that cost Umatilla County dearly.
Homes in Pendleton, Echo and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were evacuated as the Umatilla’s waters expanded far beyond the floodplain.
The Thorn Hollow Bridge was washed away, necessitating helicopter rescues.
The surging waters breached a Pendleton levee, flooding Keystone RV Co. and Cor-Tek, causing them to suspend or curtail operations.
One woman near Pendleton died.
The floods quickly drew the attention of Salem, eliciting a visit from Gov. Kate Brown, who pledged millions of dollars to replace lost housing and make critical infrastructure repairs.
Many of the evacuees came back to homes covered in mud and in a state beyond repair. While Pendleton is in the midst of working with a developer on replacement housing, it hasn’t yet broken ground. The Thorn Hollow Bridge is still broken as the county and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation look toward help from the state and federal government to get it replaced.
For Pendleton, the Umatilla River flood was the second year in a row that it experienced a major flood, after McKay Creek flooded in 2019.
Communities across Umatilla County will likely still be rebuilding from the latest flood as winter transitions into spring, keeping an eye on the region’s waterways to make sure they stay within their banks.
2. 200 march through streets of Pendleton in peaceful Black Lives Matter protest
A crowd of roughly 200 Black Lives Matter protesters links arms and marches through downtown Pendleton on Aug. 29, 2020.
As protests against racial injustice and police brutality took place across the country over the summer, nearly 200 Black Lives Matter demonstrators took to the streets of Pendleton in late August.
The event was overwhelmingly peaceful, as protesters gathered in the park to listen to community speeches. Organizers even worked with Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts weekly to plan out the stages of the protest.
The crowd was young and diverse, with attendees from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“The youth is what is going to change what is wrong,” said Max Jean Maddern, a 17-year-old nonbinary member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Nearby, around 150 counterprotesters gathered, with them an array of American, Confederate, “Trump” and “Thin Blue Line” flags, chanting “Blue lives matter,” “All lives matter” and “USA.”
As counterprotesters chanted over the speeches, speakers lead the protest in opposing chants of “Black lives matter.”
The speeches touched on a variety of topics, but nearly all referenced historical injustices and oppression faced by people of color in America. Speakers called on those in attendance to educate themselves and take action within their communities.
“Only light can drown out darkness,” Nolan Bylenga, a Black Pendleton resident and organizer for the demonstrations, said. “Only love can drive out hate.”
3. State prison system wants to cancel contract with BMCC
Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution can be seen beyond a sign for Blue Mountain Community College along Westgate in Pendleton on Oct. 16, 2020.
The Oregon Department of Corrections nearly ended a long partnership with Blue Mountain Community College until an 11th-hour reprieve saved the relationship.
BMCC was shocked when the state prison system announced it was severing its adult education contracts with all community colleges to take the work of educating inmates in-house.
The DOC argued that the move would be more efficient and consistent, and save money during a time when the department was making budget cuts. The community colleges countered that they wouldn’t save as much money as anticipated and would lose the years of experience offered by the instructors.
With BMCC offering classes at state prisons in Pendleton, Umatilla and Baker, Blue Mountain would have been affected the most by the move, potentially losing 27 jobs.
BMCC and other community colleges lobbied legislators and the governor, and state Sens. Bill Hansell and Michael Dembrow eventually brokered further negotiation between the two sides.
DOC accepted a community colleges’ proposal in November, but BMCC President Dennis Bailey-Fougnier said the funding number is still too low and more negotiations are needed.
4. Competing protests face off in Hermiston
A group of Black Lives Matter protesters skirmishes with counterprotesters as the sun begins to set. Both sides were quickly held back by their respective supporters as police arrived on scene. A crowd of roughly 40 Black Lives Matter Protesters were met with about 100 counterprotesters at the intersection of Highway 395 and East Highland Avenue in Hermiston on Aug. 21, 2020.
Tensions in Hermiston came to a head on Aug. 21, when Black Lives Matter protesters who had been holding a small protest each Friday night found themselves facing about 100 counterprotesters, many of whom were armed.
The counterprotesters had been drawn to the corner of Highway 395 and Highland Avenue by a social media post that falsely claimed Antifa was bussing in up to 150 protesters from Portland that night, and some interviewed by the East Oregonian they were there to protect local businesses from looting and vandalism. The BLM protesters stated they were there to speak out against racism.
The protest drew more people throughout the night, as members of both sides shouted at each other from across the highway and occasionally got into physical altercations. Drivers on the busy highway also got involved at times through yelling, making obscene gestures or blowing clouds of black diesel smoke in the faces of protesters.
Some protesters returned for a second round the next night, and Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston later said the two protests, along with a shooting earlier in the day, had combined to use up more than a month of the police department’s overtime budget in one weekend.
5. Colleagues mourn Pendleton city councilor
Addie Peterson tells stories about her Uncle Scott during a Jan. 19, 2020, memorial for Scott Fairley at the Pendleton Convention Center.
In a year filled with bleak news, Pendleton’s first shock came in early January, when the city of Pendleton announced that Pendleton City Councilor Scott Fairley had died.
Fairley, 53, was vacationing in Mexico with his wife and son when he was admitted to the hospital with an aneurysm, which burst before he could undergo surgery.
Friends and family remembered Fairley as an energetic and gregarious man whose optimism brought out the best in those around him. His co-workers and colleagues said he brought a similar approach to his work in state government and his position on the city council, which he was elected to in 2016.
As news began to spread about Fairley’s death, tributes from across the state, including one from Gov. Kate Brown, began pouring in. A memorial service held at the Pendleton Convention Center two weeks after his death attracted hundreds of mourners, giving the community a last chance to say farewell.
6. Boardman Generating Station powers down permanently
The Portland General Electric coal-fired plant in Boardman went offline permanently on Oct. 15, 2020.
Oregon’s last coal-fired power plant closed down permanently on Oct. 15 as the Boardman Generating Station powered down for the last time.
The plant, located near Boardman and owned by Portland General Electric, was the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It closed as part of a deal reached between the DEQ and PGE and will be replaced by a variety of sources, including the Wheatridge Energy Facility being built outside Boardman. The new facility is a combination of wind farm, solar panels and battery storage.
The coal-fired plant employed 110 PGE employees and a variety of contractors in its prime, according to the company, and had 67 employees remaining at the time of its closure. The company said many of those employees had taken jobs elsewhere within PGE, and some were remaining behind to clean up the plant ahead of its scheduled demolition in 2022.
7. County commission candidate confesses to writing racist letter
Former Umatilla County commissioner candidate Jonathan Lopez speaks at a “Freedom Rally” on May 30, 2020. Lopez confessed to writing a racist letter to himself.
A racist anonymous letter went viral on social media after Jonathan Lopez, who had recently lost a race for Umatilla County commissioner, claimed it had been left in the mailbox of his Hermiston home on June 24.
The letter was full of racist slurs, anti-immigrant language and violent threats, stating there is no room for “people like you” in America. After police began investigating it as a possible hate crime, Lopez confessed to writing the letter himself in an attempt to show the sort of racism that he said people of color sometimes face in Umatilla County.
Lopez issued a public apology and resigned from Hermiston’s Hispanic Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said he would forward the results of the department’s investigation to the district attorney’s office so the district attorney could decide whether to file charges of filing a false report. Edmiston also said he forwarded information to the Department of Justice regarding possibly false statements in Lopez’s submission to the voter’s guide regarding his resume.
8. County commissioner candidates dismiss systemic racism as local issue
A line of protesters gathers along Southeast Court Avenue outside of the Umatilla County Courthouse in Pendleton on July 15, 2020. The protesters gathered outside the courthouse during a county commissioners meeting to protest in opposition to the commissioners’ dismissal of systemic racism in Umatilla County.
In July, as protests for racial justice were unfolding across the country, the two candidates vying for the open seat on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners, HollyJo Beers and Dan Dorran, dismissed the idea that systemic racism is a problem for people of color in the county, even as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Hispanic and Latino residents in the county were being disproportionately infected by COVID-19 compared to those who were white.
Dorran, who won the election in November, was asked whether he thinks systemic racism is a problem for people of color in Umatilla County. He said it was difficult to understand what “systemic” really means and said he didn’t believe there was institutionalized racism.
“So, if you’re asking me in Umatilla County do I think there’s systemic and institutionalized racism? Absolutely not,” he said. “Is there room for dialogue? Sure. There’s always room for dialogue and listening, and that’s exactly how you grow.”
HollyJo Beers, lead of the far-right constitutionalist group the Umatilla County Three Percenters, claimed the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation were in fact racist toward white residents by choosing tribal members over “more qualified” applicants.
Beers added she doesn’t think all tribal members are personally racist, but said she believes there’s a general prejudice against white residents because of the historical injustices the American government perpetrated against indigenous communities.
When asked directly whether systemic racism exists in Umatilla County during a June 30 interview with the East Oregonian, Beers said she felt the biggest issues with local racism stem from the CTUIR.
“A lot of people will say it does. I think the obvious population here is the Tribes. The Tribes are the most racist people I’ve ever encountered,” Beers said. “The racism goes both ways.”
9. Irrigation project brings new value to Eastern Oregon farmland
Eastern Oregon’s agricultural community celebrated the completion of the long-awaited West Irrigation Project on May 5.
The $34 million water supply project added about 30,000 acres of irrigated cropland near Boardman, and is one of a package of three pipelines that advocates say together could add billions of dollars to the area’s economy. In addition to turning dryland fields into high-value irrigated crops, the project also generates significant energy savings and will be used to help recharge a critical groundwater area’s aquifers.
Columbia Improvement District owns and operates the West Project, and growers in the irrigation district used the extra irrigation water immediately over the course of the summer. Water advocates are still working to complete the other two pipelines, known as the East Project and the Ordnance Project, which will bring additional water to the Umatilla County Depot area and fields near Hermiston.
10. Pendleton airport gets ‘pennies from heaven’ in the form of federal stimulus
An airplane operated by Boutique Air sits on the tarmac at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton on April 29, 2020. The airport received roughly $16.9 million in federal stimulus as a result of the CARES Act.
For years, Pendleton city councilors and staff contemplated how to pay off the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport’s $2 million in debt. It turned out all they needed was a massive pandemic and an overly generous stimulus formula.
The city of Pendleton announced in April that it had received a $16.9 million grant from the federal stimulus package passed by Congress, meaning not only would the airport wipe away its debt, it could also invest in deferred maintenance and new equipment.
Airport Manager Steve Chrisman called the money “pennies from heaven,” but a report from Politico later revealed the formula used to determine the grant amount unintentionally privileged rural airports.
Regardless, the city was able to retire a loan that had been plaguing the airport for years. The debt was a remnant from an era when the municipal airport struggled to sustain itself and relied on borrowed money from the utilities and other city funds to stay afloat.
Although the city didn’t have to worry about defaulting on its loan, auditors still considered the debt a drag on city finances.