Columbia Riverkeeper, a powerhouse environmental nonprofit, is bringing its political clout to the local fight over Crystal Geyser’s proposed water bottling plant along the Cowlitz River in Randle.
“We think the Crystal Geyser water privatization project is a bad idea,” said Lauren Goldberg, the organization’s legal and program director. “We are impressed and inspired by the amazing local effort to protect the Cowlitz River and the community. This is a great example of people coming together to protect what they love.”
Riverkeeper boasts 16,000 members and has a long history of successfully fighting projects like coal terminals, oil refineries and dams. Its mission is to “protect and restore the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it, from the headwaters to the Pacific Ocean.” The Cowlitz River is a tributary of the Columbia.
The project in question would construct a 100,000-square-foot bottling facility in the Big Bottom Valley, extracting 400 gallons per minute from springs on the Peters Road site. The proposal has already drawn strong local backlash — including a vote of opposition from the Cowlitz Tribal Council and strong turnout at town halls and community government events by local residents.
That furor grew last week when Crystal Geyser chief operating officer Page Beykpour accidentally emailed The Chronicle the company’s strategy to conduct an “astroturf” campaign to create the appearance of grassroots support, as well as suing the local neighborhood to “get them to the table.” While the project is likely “dead,” Beykpour wrote, due to the strong local opposition, he pitched the strongarm and subterfuge tactics as “long shot” strategies that would ultimately cost the company little.
Those revelations added to Riverkeeper’s concern, Goldberg said.
“It was not surprising,” she said. “Riverkeeper has seen corporations use similar tactics. … What was surprising was the candor in an email about using those tactics, but the tactics themselves are not surprising in this day and age.”
Having been through similar battles, Riverkeeper opted last week to officially join in opposition to the Randle project. Goldberg said the nonprofit has not yet outlined a strategy for a potential legal challenge or political fight.
“We’re looking at ways in which we can support this grassroots effort to protect the Cowlitz River,” Goldberg said. “We’re in the very early stages of starting to work with the local community and the Cowlitz Tribe. … In light of what happened last week, we’re very interested to see whether this project sticks around. It’s really not clear whether (Crystal Geyser) will continue to fight the strong and vocal opposition.”
Riverkeeper’s primary concern is with the possible environmental impact of the plant. Goldberg noted that similar proposals throughout the Northwest have been met with strong community opposition in recent years, demonstrating that the bottled water industry has fallen out of favor with the region.
“Water privatization in the Pacific Northwest, in a time where water resources in the Columbia Basin are scarce and having direct and very harmful impacts on salmon and other endangered species — that’s the leading reason that we’re involved,” she said. “We also frequently will engage on individual proposals where we have the opportunity to work in solidarity with a tribal nation and where community members would experience very immediate impacts.”