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Is America's $8 Billion Bottled Water Industry a Fraud

Published on Tuesday, December 9, 2003 by E/The Environmental Magazine
Despite the Hype, Bottled Water is Neither Cleaner nor Greener than Tap
Water
by Brian Howard

"You drink tap water? Are you crazy?" asks a 21-year-old radio producer from
the Chicago area. "I only drink bottled water." In a trendy nightclub in New
York City, the bartender tells guests they can only be served bottled water,
which costs $5 for each tiny half-pint container. One outraged clubber is
stopped by the restroom attendant as she tries to refill the bottle from the
tap. "You can't do that," says the attendant. "New York's tap water isn't
safe."

Whether a consumer is shopping in a supermarket or a health food store,
working out in a fitness center, eating in a restaurant or grabbing some
quick refreshment on the go, he or she will likely be tempted to buy bottled
water. The product comes in an ever-growing variety of sizes and shapes,
including one bottle that looks like a drop of water with a golden cap. Some
fine hotels now offer the services of "water sommeliers" to advise diners on
which water to drink with different courses.

A widening spectrum of bottled water types are crowding the market,
including spring, mineral, purified, distilled, carbonated, oxygenated,
caffeinated and vitamin-enriched, as well as flavors, such as lemon or
strawberry, and specific brands aimed at children. Bottled water bars have
sprung up in the hipper districts, from Paris to Los Angeles.

The message is clear: Bottled water is "good" water, as opposed to that
nasty, unsafe stuff that comes out of the tap. But in most cases tap water
adheres to stricter purity standards than bottled water, whose source < far
from a mountain spring can be wells underneath industrial facilities.
Indeed, 40 percent of bottled water began life as, well, tap water.

A 2001 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) study confirmed the widespread belief that
consumers associate bottled water with social status and healthy living.
Their perceptions trump their objectivity, because even some people who
claim to have switched to bottled water "for the taste" can't tell the
difference: When Good Morning America conducted a taste test of its studio
audience, New York City tap water was chosen as the heavy favorite over the
oxygenated water 02, Poland Spring and Evian. Many of the "facts" that
bottled water drinkers swear by are erroneous. Rachele Kuzma, a Rutgers
student, says she drinks bottled water at school because "it's healthier"
and "doesn't have fluoride," although much of it does have fluoride.

Bottled water is so ubiquitous that people can hardly ask for water anywhere
without being handed a bottle. But what is the cost to society and the
environment?

Largely Self-Regulated

The bottled water industry has exploded in recent years, and enjoys annual
sales of more than $35 billion worldwide. In 2002, almost six billion
gallons of bottled water were sold in the U.S., representing an increase of
nearly 11 percent over 2001. Americans paid $7.7 billion for bottled water
in 2002, according to the consulting and research firm Beverage Marketing
Corporation. Bottled water is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage
industry, and the product is expected to pass both coffee and milk to become
the second-most-consumed beverage (behind soft drinks) by 2004. According to
the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "More than half of all
Americans drink bottled water; about a third of the public consumes it
regularly." While most people would argue that bottled water is healthier
than convenient alternatives like sugared sodas or artificially flavored
drinks, are the third of bottled water consumers who claim they are
motivated by promises of purity (according to a 2000 survey) getting what
they pay for?

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the quality of
public water supplies, the agency has no authority over bottled water.
Bottled water that crosses state lines is considered a food product and is
overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does mandate that
it be bottled in sanitary conditions using food-grade equipment. According
to the influential International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), "By law,
the FDA Standard of Quality for bottled water must be as stringent as the
EPA's standards for public drinking water."

However, the FDA is allowed to interpret the EPA's regulations and apply
them selectively to bottled water. As Senior Attorney Erik Olson of the NRDC
explains, "Although the FDA has adopted some of the EPA's regulatory
standards, it has decided not to adopt others and has not even ruled on some
points after several years of inaction." In a 1999 report, the NRDC
concludes that bottled water quality is probably not inferior to average tap
water, but Olson (the report's principal author) says that gaps in the weak
regulatory framework may allow careless or unscrupulous bottlers to market
substandard products. He says that may be of particular concern to those
with compromised immune systems.

The IBWA urges consumers to trust bottled water in part because the FDA
requires water sources to be "inspected, sampled, analyzed and approved."
However, the NRDC argues that the FDA provides no specific requirements-such
as proximity to industrial facilities, underground storage tanks or
dumps-for bottled water sources. That's looser monitoring than occurs at the
EPA, which requires more specific assessments of tap water sources. Olson
says one brand of "spring water," which had a graphic of mountains and a
lake on the label, was actually taken from a well in Massachusetts in the
parking lot of an industrial facility. The well, which is no longer used for
bottled water, was near hazardous waste and had experienced contamination by
industrial chemicals.

According to Olson, the FDA has no official procedure for rejecting bottled
water sources once they become contaminated. He also says a 1990 government
audit revealed that 25 percent of water bottlers had no record of source
approval. Further, in contrast to the EPA, which employs hundreds of
staffers to protect the nation's tap water systems, the FDA doesn't have
even one full-time regulator in charge of bottled water.

Scott Hoober of the Kansas Rural Water Association says that although
municipal system managers have to pay a certified lab to test samples
weekly, monthly and quarterly for a long list of contaminants, water
bottlers can use any lab they choose to perform tests as infrequently as
once a year. Unlike utilities, which must publish their lab results in a
public record, bottlers don't have to notify anyone of their findings,
including consumers who inquire. The FDA has the authority to ask for a
company's data, although test results can be destroyed after two years.

Olson adds, "Unlike tap water violations, which are directly enforceable, if
a company exceeds bottled water standards, it is not necessarily a
violation-they can just say so on the label, and may be insulated from
enforcement." Further, while EPA rules specify that no confirmed E. coli or
fecal coliform (bacteria that indicate possible contamination by fecal
matter) contamination is allowed in tap water, the FDA merely set a minimum
level for E. coli and fecal coliform presence in bottled water. Tap water
from a surface source must be tested for cryptosporidium, giardia and
viruses, unlike bottled water, and must also be disinfected, unlike bottled
water. Hoober also notes that food products such as "carbonated water,"
"soda water" and "seltzer water"-in addition to most flavored waters-are
held to even looser standards than "true" bottled water.

The EPA concludes, "Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while
some is treated less or not at all." Henry Kim, consumer safety officer for
the FDA, asserts, "We want bottled water to have a comparable quality to
that of tap water"-which, of course, runs counter to the widely held public
belief that bottled water is better. The situation is similar in the
European Union and in Canada, where there are more regulations on tap than
bottled water. That New York restroom attendant would be surprised to learn
that her city's tap water was tested some 560,000 times in 2002.

Environmentalists also point out that if a brand of bottled water is wholly
packaged and sold within the same state, it is technically not regulated by
the FDA, and is therefore only legally subject to state standards, which
tend to vary widely in scope and vigor. Co-op America reports that 43 states
have one or fewer staff members dedicated to bottled water regulation. On
the other hand, California enforces strict regulations on bottled water
contaminants, and Fort Collins, Colorado tests bottled water sold in town
and posts the results online. The NRDC estimates that 60 to 70 percent of
bottled water brands sold in the U.S. are single-state operations. Stephen
Kay, vice president of communications of the IBWA, says he doubts the
percentage is that high. Kay is adamant that "no bottled water escapes
regulation," and he points out that all members of the IBWA (which are
responsible for 80 percent of U.S. bottled water sales) must also adhere to
the organization's mandatory Model Code. This code does close some of the
FDA's regulatory gaps, including setting a zero tolerance for coliform
contamination, and it requires members to follow certain standards and
undergo an annual, unannounced plant inspection. However, Olson stresses
that, except in a few states, this Model Code is not legally binding or
enforceable. Members of the much smaller National Spring Water Association
follow their own guidelines, and must get their water from free-flowing
springs.

One result of such Byzantine bottled water standards has been the widespread
use of disinfection to reduce possible contaminants. Although the FDA does
not require it, disinfection is mandatory in several states, including New
York, California and Texas. However, chemicals commonly used to disinfect
water, including chlorine and ozone gas, may react unpredictably, forming
potentially carcinogenic byproducts. Opponents also argue that disinfection
destroys naturally beneficial bacteria, creating a blank slate. Further,
Mark Johnson of bottler Trinity Springs-which taps a spring in Idaho so pure
it doesn't need any treatment-concludes, "If you don't disinfect, you must
protect the source and increase environmental awareness so the source stays
protected."

What's Really in that Bottle?

Even with widespread disinfection, consumer groups have raised numerous
warnings about a host of different microorganisms and chemicals that have
been found in bottled water. In a four-year scientific study, the NRDC
tested more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of bottled water. The group
concluded, "Although most bottled water tested was of good quality, some
brands' quality was spotty." A third of the tested brands were found to
contain contaminants such as arsenic and carcinogenic compounds in at least
some samples at levels exceeding state or industry standards.

An earlier NRDC-commissioned study tested for hundreds of different
chemicals in 38 brands of California bottled water. Two samples had arsenic
contamination, six had chemical byproducts of chlorination, and six had
measurable levels of the toxic chemical toluene. Several samples violated
California's bottled water standards. In a study published in the Archives
of Family Medicine, researchers at Case Western Reserve University and Ohio
State University compared 57 samples of bottled water to Cleveland's tap
water. While 39 of the bottled water samples were purer than the tap water,
15 of the bottles had significantly higher bacteria levels. The scientists
concluded that although all of the water they tested was safe to drink, "use
of bottled water on the assumption of purity can be misguided."

Another area of potential concern is the fact that no agency calls for
testing of bottled water after it leaves its initial packaging plant,
leaving some to wonder what happens during months of storage and transport.
To begin to examine this question, the Kansas Department of Health and
Environment tested 80 samples of bottled water from retail stores and
manufacturers. All 80 of the samples had detectable levels of chlorine,
fluoride and sodium. Seventy-eight of the 80 contained some nitrate (which
can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, in higher doses), 12 had
nitrite, 53 had chloroform, 33 contained bromodichloro-methane, 25 had
arsenic and 15 tested positive for lead.

Forty-six of the samples contained traces of some form of the carcinogen
(and hormone disrupter) phthalate, while 12 of those exceeded federal safety
levels for that chemical. According to Olson, phthalates may leach out of
some plastic bottles into water. "Phthalates are not legally regulated in
bottled water because of intense industry pressure," says Olson. Although
Co-op America concludes that there is little evidence of a link between
phthalate exposure from bottled water and any health problems, the group
suggests using glass over plastic bottles as a precaution. Similarly, if
your office cooler is made of polycarbonate, it may be releasing small
amounts of the potential hormone disrupter bisphenol A into the water.
Idaho's Pure Health Solutions, a water purification company, also conducted
its own study that concluded certain bacteria grow significantly in bottled
water over a 12-day period. Bacteria will normally grow in tap water within
a few days if it is kept bottled up at room temperature. Most municipal
water managers leave a residual amount of chlorine in tap water after
treatment specifically to inhibit the growth of bacteria as the water runs
through pipes and sits in tanks.

The IBWA argues that the presence of benign bacteria in bottled water has no
bearing on public health, since the treatment processes used by
manufacturers ensure the death of any potentially harmful organisms. The
group's website claims that there have been no confirmed cases of illness in
the U.S. as a result of bottled water. The IBWA does mention an instance in
1994 in the Northern Mariana Islands, in which bottled well water was linked
to a disease outbreak. The NRDC argues that no U.S. government agency
actively searches for incidents of illness from bottled water.

On the Internet, one can find testimonials and news reports about people who
claim to have gotten sick from tainted bottled water. One man writes that he
and his fiancée became ill after drinking bottled water in the Dominican
Republic. The Allegheny County Health Department in Pennsylvania reports
discovering high levels of coliform in bottled water samples that were taken
"after a man reported that he became sick from drinking the water."

Misleading Labels

Another complaint commonly levied against the bottled water industry is that
many of the myriad product labels are misleading. Not long ago, New
York-based artist Nancy Drew began collecting water bottles for a project.
She concluded, "In a culture so inundated with images solely designed for
promotion and profit, water is the most absurd element to see being used in
this context." Drew's subsequent art views water labels' ubiquitous
depictions of pristine landscapes as a stark contrast to the "gluttonous
consumption and sense of status that they represent."

The IBWA states, "The labeling requirements ensure that the source and
purity of the bottled water are identified and that, if the label is false
or misleading, the supplier is subject to civil or criminal sanctions." Even
so, the FDA technically requires that bottled water labels disclose only
three variables: the class of water (such as spring or mineral), the
manufacturer, and the volume. That brand of Massachusetts "spring water"
exposed by NRDC was so-named because the source occasionally bubbled up to
the surface in the industrial parking lot.

As ABC News put it, "Ad campaigns touting spring-fed or glacier-born H2O are
winning over a population increasingly skeptical of taps and willing to
shell out big bucks for what they consider a purer, tastier and safer
drink." Water bottlers use product names such as More Precious Than Gold,
Ice Mountain, Desert Quench, Pure American, Utopia and Crystal Springs. The
Environmental Law Foundation has sued eight bottlers on the basis that they
used words like "pure" to market water containing bacteria, arsenic and
chlorine breakdown products.

Co-op America advises consumers "to be wary of words like 'pure,'
'pristine,' 'glacial,' 'premium,' 'natural' or 'healthy.' They're basically
meaningless words added to labels to emphasize the alleged purity of bottled
water over tap water." The group points out that, in one case, bottled water
labeled as "Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water from
the Last Unpolluted Frontier" was actually drawn from Public Water System
#111241 in Juneau. The FDA now requires this bottler to add "from a
municipal source" on the label. According to Co-op America, "as much as 40
percent of bottled water is actually bottled tap water, sometimes with
additional treatment, sometimes not." So-called purified water can be drawn
from any source as long as it is subsequently treated, which leaves some to
wonder how that differs from good old tap water.

The number one (Aquafina) and two (Dasani) top-selling brands of bottled
water in the U.S. both fall in the category of purified water. Dasani is
sold by Coca-Cola, while Aquafina is a Pepsi product. As U.S. News & World
Report explains, "Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita,
Kansas." The newsmagazine continues, "Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is
taken from the taps of Queens, New York, Jacksonville, Florida, and
elsewhere." Everest bottled water originates from southern Texas, while
Yosemite brand is drawn from the Los Angeles suburbs. In June, a lawsuit was
filed against Poland Spring, the nation's largest bottled spring water
company. Poland Spring is a brand of Nestlé Waters North America, which used
to be called Perrier Group of America. Nestlé Waters is owned by the
Switzerland-based Nestlé S.A., the world's largest food company. Nestlé's 14
other brands of U.S. bottled water include Arrowhead, Deer Park, Aberfoyle,
Zephyrhills, Ozarka and Ice Mountain.

The plaintiffs charged that Nestlé duped consumers by advertising that
Poland Spring water comes from "some of the most pristine and protected
sources deep in the woods of Maine." The lawsuit alleges that ever since the
original Poland Spring was shut down in 1967, the company has used man-made
wells, at least one of which is in a parking lot along a busy road. "Poland
Spring is exactly what we say it is-natural spring water," responded a
Nestlé spokesperson.

Mistrusting the Tap

Despite all the hype, the NRDC concludes, "While much tap water is indeed
risky, having compared available data, we conclude that there is no
assurance that bottled water is any safer than tap water." Scientists at the
University of Geneva arrived at the same conclusion, and add that, in 50
percent of the cases they studied, the only difference between tap and
bottled water was that the latter contained added minerals and salts, "which
do not actually mean the water is healthier." In 1997, the United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that bottled water does not have
greater nutritional value than tap water.

So why do so many of us trust and prefer bottled water to the liquid that is
already piped directly into our homes? For the price of one bottle of Evian,
a person can use 1,000 gallons of tap water in the home. Americans spend
around $10,700 on bottled water every minute, reports Co-op America, and
many consumers think nothing of paying three times as much per gallon of
bottled H2O as they do for gasoline.

Kay says the IBWA does not intend to promote bottled water as a replacement
for tap water, except maybe during emergencies. "Since bottled water is
considered a food product by law, it doesn't make sense to single it out as
needing more regulations than other foods," says Kay. He also stresses that
IBWA guidelines strictly prevent members from trying to capitalize on fears
over tap water, or from directly advertising that their products are more
pure than municipal water.

Bottled water's competition is soft drinks, not tap water, says Kay. Karen
from Ames, Iowa posted on the 2000days web diary: "In the summer I buy
bottled water more often so I'll have something to drink that's not loaded
with syrup and stuff."

Some critics have also found it ironic that many people who purchase bottled
water end up refilling the containers from a tap. Clearly, some consumers
may be more interested in buying the product for its packaging than for the
water itself-or they impulsively purchased a bottle where there was no
immediate access to a tap.

The Green Response

More and more environmentalists are beginning to question the purpose of
lugging those heavy, inefficient, polluting bottles all over the Earth. The
parent organization of the World Wildlife Fund, the Switzerland-based World
Wide Fund for Nature, argues strongly that the product is a waste of money
and is very environmentally unfriendly. Co-op America concludes: "By far the
cheapest-and often the safest-option is to drink water from a tap. It's also
the most environmentally friendly option." Friends of the Earth says, "We
might as well drink water from the tap and save all this waste."

The WWF argues that the distribution of bottled water requires substantially
more fuel than delivering tap water, especially since over 22 million tons
of the bottled liquid is transferred each year from country to country.
Instead of relying on a mostly preexisting infrastructure of underground
pipes and plumbing, delivering bottled water-often from places as far-flung
as France, Iceland or Maine-burns fossil fuels and results in the release of
thousands of tons of harmful emissions. Since some bottled water is also
shipped or stored cold, electricity is expended for refrigeration. Energy is
likewise used in bottled water processing. In filtration, an estimated two
gallons of water is wasted for every gallon purified. When most people think
of bottled water, they probably envision the single-serve plastic bottle,
which has exploded in popularity and is now available almost anywhere food
products are sold. The WWF estimates that around 1.5 million tons of plastic
are used globally each year in water bottles, leaving a sizable
manufacturing footprint. Most water bottles are made of the oil-derived
polyethylene terephthalate, which is known as PET. While PET is less toxic
than many plastics, the Berkeley Ecology Center found that manufacturing PET
generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions-in the form of nickel,
ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide and benzene-compared to making the same amount
of glass. The Climate Action Network concludes, "Making plastic bottles
requires almost the same energy input as making glass bottles, despite
transport savings that stem from plastic's light weight."

Andrew Swanander, owner of Mountain Town Spring Water, says, "I'm
embarrassed and appalled to see my bottled water products discarded on the
side of the road." In fact, a considerable number of used water bottles end
up as litter, where they can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. A 2002
study by Scenic Hudson reported that 18 percent by volume of recovered
litter from the Hudson River (and 14 percent by weight) was comprised of
beverage containers.

Pat Franklin, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute
(CRI), says nine out of 10 plastic water bottles end up as either garbage or
litter-at a rate of 30 million per day. According to the Climate Action
Network, when some plastic bottles are incinerated along with other trash,
as is the practice in many municipalities, toxic chlorine (and potentially
dioxin) is released into the air while heavy metals deposit in the ash. If
plastics are buried in landfills, not only do they take up valuable space,
but potentially toxic additives such as phthalates may leak into the
groundwater. "It's ironic that many people drink bottled water because they
are afraid of tap water, but then the bottles they discard can result in
more polluted water," says Franklin. "It's a crazy cycle."

Franklin also acknowledges that although her group is a strong advocate of
recycling, the very concept may encourage people to consume more plastics.
Replacing used water bottles with new containers made from virgin resources
consumes energy and pollutes the air, land and water. CRI estimates that
supplying thirsty Americans with water bottles for one year consumes more
than 1.5 million barrels of oil, which is enough to generate electricity for
more than 250,000 homes for a year, or enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a
year.

Big Footprint

Despite such a sizable environmental footprint, the push to recycle plastic
water bottles has not been as successful as many consumers might like to
think as they faithfully toss their used containers into those blue bins. As
Utne magazine recently reported, "Despite the ubiquitous arrow symbol, only
five percent of plastic waste is currently recycled in America and much of
that must be fortified with huge amounts of virgin plastic." One limitation
is that recycling plastic causes it to lose strength and flexibility,
meaning the process can only be done a few times with any given sample.

Another problem is that different types of plastics are very difficult to
sort, even though they can't be recycled together. Common plastic additives
such as phthalates or metal salts can also thwart recycling efforts as can
too high a ratio of colored bottles (such as Dasani's blue containers) to
clear bottles. Because of the challenges, many recycling centers refuse to
accept plastics. In fact, a fair amount of America's plastic recycling is
done in Asia, where laxer environmental laws govern polluting factories and
fuel is spent in international transport.

According to a report recently released by the California Department of
Conservation (CDOC), more than one billion water bottles are ending up in
the state's trash each year, representing enough plastic to make 74 million
square feet of carpet or 16 million sweaters. Darryl Young, the director of
CDOC, says only 16 percent of PET water bottles sold in California are being
recycled, compared to much higher rates for aluminum and glass. "It's good
people are drinking water, but we need to do more outreach to promote
recycling," says Young. Franklin says one potential deterrent to recycling
may be that water bottles are often used away from home, meaning they aren't
likely to make it into curbside bins. Young advises people to ask for
recycling bins in retail and public spaces.

Industry analysts point out that demand exceeds supply in the market for
recycled PET plastic, which is used in a range of goods from flowerpots to
plastic lumber. Franklin says deposit systems, or so-called bottle bills,
would go a long way to improving the collection of used water bottles,
especially since only half the country has curbside recycling available. But
only a few states have bottle bills, largely because of strong opposition
from the container, beverage and retail industries (and their front group,
Keep America Beautiful). While Kay stresses that the IBWA urges consumers to
recycle, he says his organization opposes bottle bills because "food
retailers shouldn't have to devote any money-making floor space to storing
and sorting recyclables, especially as that may lead to unsanitary
conditions."

The WWF says alternatives to bottled water such as boiling and filtering are
cheaper and more sustainable in areas that have contaminated tap sources.
Co-op America and CRI advise consumers to fill their own bottles to take
with them on the go. Glass doesn't leach chemicals, and sturdy plastics can
be repeatedly washed, so consumers don't have to worry about breeding
bacteria. For a lessened environmental impact, spring and other specialty
waters can be purchased in bulk. But as BBC News concluded, "The
conservationists are fighting an uphill battle. The bottled water market is
booming...and shows no signs of drying up."

Battling the Bottlers

Numerous environmental and social activists have recently begun to put up a
fight against the expanding bottled water industry, which they claim
threatens local wells, streams, wetlands and ways of life. Bottling
companies may pump up to 500 gallons per minute, or even more, out of each
well, and many wells run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Such operations
have drawn intense opposition in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania,
Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin. Many residents of these states depend heavily
on groundwater for residential, agricultural and fishery use. In Wisconsin,
for example, three out of four homes and 97 percent of municipalities obtain
their water from the ground.

"Resistance against water bottlers is a classic NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard)
issue," says Kay. The IBWA claims bottlers wouldn't pump aquifers to
depletion because that wouldn't make good business sense. But civil engineer
and hydrologist Tom Ballestero of the University of New Hampshire cautions
that surrounding wells and the environment can be negatively impacted before
an aquifer is severely depleted. "The groundwater they are pumping and
exporting was going somewhere where it had an environmental benefit," says
Ballestero. Geologist David Bainbridge of Alliant International University
also points out that there are scant few penalties against users who draw
down water tables or deplete aquifers. Due to the long amount of time it
takes to naturally replenish aquifers, most scientists consider groundwater
a nonrenewable resource.

Much of the opposition to water bottlers has been directed at Nestlé Waters
North America, which taps around 75 different U.S. spring sites. A
spokesperson for the corporation, Jane Lazgin, says most communities welcome
the jobs and revenue brought by bottling operations. Even so, Nestlé lost
several bids to set up bottling plants in the Midwest due to intense
opposition. Eventually, for its Ice Mountain brand, Nestlé built a $100
million plant capable of bottling 260 million gallons of water a year from
an aquifer in Michigan's rural Mecosta County, which is about 60 miles north
of Grand Rapids. Nestlé paid around $150 for permits and received
substantial tax breaks.

Local activists, mobilized by the newly formed Michigan Citizens for Water
Conservation, protested the plant on the grounds that the facility would
take too heavy a toll on the surrounding environment and quality of life.
Although Nestlé claims it conducted "exhaustive studies for nearly two years
to ensure that the plant does not deplete water sources or harm the
ecosystem," the activists pointed out that the state has no authority to
limit the amount of water that is actually removed. Three Native American
tribes sued the state on the basis that rivers, and ultimately, the Great
Lakes, would be affected. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and a few
local residents also filed a lawsuit, claiming that the Mecosta operations
violate state and federal water rights. The controversy became a hot topic
during the 2002 gubernatorial election. As Grist reported, "Both major party
candidates publicly and repeatedly expressed their resolve to modernize
state water policy to block other multinational corporations from
privatizing, bottling and selling hundreds of millions of gallons of
Michigan's groundwater annually across state lines." A ruling on the case is
expected soon, and is believed to have far-reaching ramifications.

In Florida, Nestlé angered many people, including the group Save Our
Springs, when it took over Crystal Spring, which is near Tampa. The company
fenced out the public, which had enjoyed the water for generations. After
five years of bottling operations, the spring level has dropped. Some
officals are worried, since the spring feeds the source of Tampa's water.
Nestlé blames the change on dry spells and local development.

Local residents have also fought Nestlé in rural northeast Texas, where they
complain that a well across the street from the company's bottling site went
dry five days after Nestlé began operations. Nestlé's Lazgin claims that
well dried up because it was old and shallow, and that it was not on the
same aquifer as the bottling plant. Critics counter that aquifer geology is
a fairly subjective science. The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of
Nestlé under the state's "rule of capture." Save Our Springs President Terri
Wolfe told The Northwestern, "The poor people whose wells run dry because of
[bottlers] can't afford that water."

What's the Quencher?

A host of environmental groups are joining resource managers in the call for
Americans to cut back on bottled water and instead look to tap systems to
provide our daily needs. As the NRDC points out, incidents of chemical or
microbial contamination in tap water are actually relatively rare. In a
recent review of the nation's public drinking water infrastructure,
researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded, "Reasonably
reliable water is currently available to nearly all 270 million U.S.
residents."

Writing in The Kansas Lifeline, Scott Hoober expresses frustration on the
part of municipal water managers, who are increasingly shackled with
negative reputations despite their actual accomplishments. Hoober advises
managers sarcastically, "What are you waiting for? Turn a few valves,
install a bottling plant and begin to make the big bucks. You could sell
your water for half of what the other bottler down the road is charging and
still make a bundle. With no meters or mains to maintain, no monthly
billing, lower lab bills, why, you could afford a top-dollar advertising
campaign telling folks how much better your water is than the stuff that
used to come out of the tap."

It's true that tap water does face numerous threats, including possible
contamination from the potentially harmful byproducts of chlorination, the
specter of pollution and a lack of adequate funding. Stresses from global
warming, urban sprawl and population increase also must be factored in, as
well as the looming threat of terrorism. The WWF argues that governments
should focus their limited energies on repairing current tap water
infrastructures and on protecting watersheds from harmful farm, industry and
urban pollutants. Many public water supply advocates feel that tax dollars
should be paying to deal with tap water's challenges. We certainly need to
think twice before handing off the public water trust to private companies
that put it in attractive bottles at a high price.

Related Links

Natural Resources Defense Council

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