Washington State Bottled Water Bill Fails, But Congress Scrutinizes Industry

By: - March 6, 2020 12:00 am

SEATTLE — A bill in Washington state to ban bottled water companies from tapping groundwater sources has died in a state House committee, stalling efforts to make the state the first in the nation to place such limits on the industry. But national scrutiny may be intensifying, as a congressional subcommittee has launched an investigation into the bottled water industry. 

“The lethal, mercenary, icy hand of lobbyist bill assassination slaughtered SB 6278 to ban new state permits for commercial bottled water extraction,” the Washington bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, tweeted as the measure met its demise. 

But state Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Republican who represents the Randle community where a proposed bottling plant sparked the bill, emailed some residents to explain his concerns with the legislation. 

“Normally, changes to water law take years to adopt because they can affect so many other users via unintended consequences,” he wrote. “A tremendous amount of work and discussions with stakeholders is required in order to prevent such unintended consequences prior to passage of a bill.”

Besides Washington, lawmakers in Michigan and Maine have filed bills to put a check on bottling operations. Environmentalists and rural activists say the industry extracts a critical public resource for little to no cost, often damaging aquifers and watersheds, before packaging it in plastic bottles and shipping it elsewhere for sale. 

Later this month, the Environment Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee will begin holding hearings on industry practices, said Chairman Harley Rouda of California and Vice Chairwoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both Democrats.

“The Subcommittee is concerned that Nestle is taking a critical public resource from communities in need without equitably reinvesting in those communities and ensuring long-term environmental sustainability,” the pair wrote in a letter to Nestle Waters North America. 

They asked Nestle, the world’s largest bottler and a company that has faced scrutiny for its operations in numerous communities, to provide documents related to its practices in Michigan and elsewhere. Rouda and Tlaib also expressed concerns about plastic waste and microplastics in water bottles.

Nestle Waters North America spokesman Adam Gaber said the company will “cooperate fully” with the House investigation.

“[I]t is our business and our passion to care for water, and we take it seriously,” he wrote in an email to Stateline. “We recognize the significant responsibility we have as a bottled water company to operate responsibly and sustainably today, and well into the future.”

Bottled water industry leaders say they stand by their environmental record, provide a healthy alternative to soft drinks and have worked to limit the plastic pollution they produce. 

“Because a long-term sustainable supply of high-quality water is literally the foundation and ‘lifeblood’ of bottled water companies, the bottled water industry recognizes the critical importance of environmental conservation and stewardship of all water resources,” the International Bottled Water Association said in a statement on Washington’s proposed ban.

The Washington bill was introduced after Crystal Geyser, another major bottler, attempted to build a bottling plant in Randle, a small community near Mount Rainier. Residents were concerned about damage to the aquifer, as well as an industrial operation in their rural community. A leaked email outlining the company’s plans to sue local residents and conduct an underground public relations campaign galvanized the opposition and got the attention of leaders across the state, including Carlyle. 

Carlyle’s bill would have banned bottled water companies from tapping groundwater sources, but still allowed them to buy municipal tap water for their products, as most currently do.

After the bill passed the state Senate on a mostly party-line vote, it came before the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources. Randle residents, environmentalists and tribal leaders testified in favor of the bill, saying it would protect watersheds and fisheries.

But groups such as the Washington Beverage Association, International Bottled Water Association and the Building Industry Association of Washington testified that the measure could create a “slippery slope” that would allow lawmakers to use water rights laws to effectively ban industries they didn’t favor. 

The committee did not bring it up for a vote, effectively killing it.

Carlyle, the bill’s sponsor, tweeted that his proposal would have passed overwhelmingly if it was put before voters as a public initiative. Craig Jasmer, a Randle resident who has led activist efforts to fight Crystal Geyser and support the statewide ban, said his group, the Lewis County Water Alliance, is strategizing to determine whether they will put the issue forward as a ballot measure.

Local activists did celebrate local success last month when Lewis County commissioners passed an ordinance banning bottling companies from extracting groundwater. Jasmer has also been invited to testify before the congressional committee on March 24 about the community’s fight with Crystal Geyser. 

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.