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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Troubled Waters: Mt. Shasta Neighbors Vs. Crystal Geyser Co.

The waters that bubble from the fractured volcanic rock underlying Mount Shasta are clean, cold and tasty. Rainfall, snowmelt and glacial meltwater, some of which has been percolating through the mountain for more than 50 years, gushes from hundreds of springs. Now, a Calistoga-based beverage company wants to tap those waters. Local authorities have given the green light. But some Mount Shasta residents say that decision has made without knowing enough about the impacts, and they’re trying to put on the brakes.

Every day, a near-constant stream of locals and tourists carrying empty jugs and bottles comes to Big Springs, at the Mount Shasta City Park. Here, frigid water pours over mossy rocks into a small pool, then runs downstream to eventually join the Sacramento River. A recent morning was no exception … A young woman from Louisiana named Jordan said she and her traveling companions jumped off I-5 specifically to fill up.

Jordan: “We heard this was the best place to get the cleanest water. Did a taste test first and it passed all the tests. Very cold and delicious. Super good.”

Also at the Big Springs this morning are Bruce Hillman and Roslyn McCoy. The Mount Shasta residents are with the group We Advocate Thorough Environmental Review, known by its acronym WATER. They want the Crystal Geyser company to be required to do a formal Environmental Impact Report before doing business here.

Bruce Hillman: “We think opening this plant without analyzing the possible environmental impacts is very irresponsible.”

Crystal Geyser bought a 145,000-square-foot water bottling plant just outside the city of Mount Shasta. The plant was abandoned in 2010 by Coca-Cola. Crystal Geyser – a subsidiary of the Japanese firm Otsuka Pharmaceuticals -- is re-tooling the plant to bottle spring water, as well as make flavored waters, teas and carbonated fruit juices.

Bruce Hillman says, given the prolonged California drought, and the severe cutbacks in water use being made around the state, it makes no sense to open a new beverage plant.

Bruce Hillman: “We do not know what the effects of industrial water pumping will have not only on the local neighbors who depend on well water, but also, this area is one of the headwaters of the Sacramento River and what that will have on basically on the entire watershed of northern California.”

Roslyn McCoy says so little is known about the complex hydrology of the area that pulling several hundred thousand gallons a day for the Crystal Geyser plant could draw water now being used by Mount Shasta residents.

Roslyn McCoy: “What if they’re drawing on that same line? Because this isn’t like a pool of water under the ground. This is lava tubes, cracks, this is a volcanic system. And that’s why we need to have the real scientific research here.”

Siskiyou County officials don’t seem to share that concern. No one from the county would agree to be interviewed. But county officials have stated in the past that the land where the bottling plant is located is zoned for that use and that no additional environmental review is required.

That’s been the position taken by Crystal Geyser, as well. And that’s consistent with the company’s moves in the past.

In 2009, the city council in Orland – about 120 miles south of Mount Shasta on I-5 – approved a Crystal Geyser bottling plant there. The city said the company didn’t need to do an Environmental Impact Report. Local residents sued, and in 2011, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled a full environmental review was necessary. Crystal Geyser promptly canceled plans for the Orland plant.

So it was something of a surprise when the company announced late last week that it would, after all, agree to an Environmental Impact Report for the Mount Shasta project. Crystal Geyser officials declined to be interviewed, but posted a statement on their web page saying the project would need a permit from the Siskiyou County Air Pollution Control District, which would trigger an EIR.

The abrupt 180 has taken project opponents by surprise. Bruce Hillman wonders if Crystal Geyser isn’t pulling a deft political jiu-jitsu move by agreeing to an EIR, thinking the county air pollution district will be in charge of the study.

Bruce Hillman: “We think that is maybe what’s happening here, trying to find a small agency which might rubber stamp or not have the expertise or enforcement ability to do a real thorough and enforceable environmental review.”

Hillman says that’s what happened 15 years ago when the Danone corporation first built the bottling plant near Mount Shasta. He says that company failed to abide by restrictions written into its permit, and that local authorities never enforced them.

Hillman’s group WATER recently filed a lawsuit against Crystal Geyser and Siskiyou County, challenging the county’s zoning and groundwater permitting for the plant. So, with the agreement to do the environmental review, have the neighbors won?

Bruce Hillman: “This is far from over. In fact, this is just a beginning step of a whole new game here.”

Crystal Geyser had planned to open the Mount Shasta bottling this fall. So far, company officials have not made public a new opening date.