The Cowlitz River’s path downstream of Randle is the sort of idyllic scene you’d expect to see on the label of a water bottle. As the river traces a route through the Big Bottom Valley, it’s bordered by grassy meadows, with Huffaker Mountain’s forested slopes rising above the terrain. The river’s turquoise waters are evidence of their source, the Cowlitz Glacier near the summit of Mount Rainier.
Locals here say they love the unspoiled terrain, the peace and quiet that comes with living far off the beaten path. And they’re terrified that Crystal Geyser’s plan to build a water-bottling plant right along the river could have far-reaching consequences for their way of life in the valley — and for everyone who depends on the river, a tributary of the mighty Columbia.
“It’s a sleepy town here in Randle,” said nearby resident Tina Jorgensen. “We have people who retired in this area because that’s the kind of thing they value. … This isn’t an industrial area, and (Crystal Geyser) wants to turn it into one.”
In the days since the bottling proposal reached the public eye, opposition has grown swiftly. A Facebook group known as the Lewis County Water Alliance now boasts more than 390 members. Environmental groups have taken notice, and the Cowlitz Tribe is raising concern as well.
Crystal Geyser’s proposal would build a plant of about 100,000 square feet on its newly acquired property at 807 Peters Road. The company purchased the 80-acre lot in late May for more than $700,000, nearly triple its assessed value. Its facility, according to operations officer Page Beykpour, would have a footprint of 5 to 10 acres. The company would pull 400 gallons per minute from springs on the property, according to the withdrawal permit it submitted to the state.
“Pulling that much water out of a system and shipping it out of state — that in itself is an egregious process,” said Trish Rolfe, executive director for the Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “If you are pulling that much water out of the ground at the rate they’re proposing, there’s pretty high likelihood that will impact the wells in the surrounding area. That is a concern. … This is the wrong plant in the wrong place. It is an area that is prone to drought with climate change and not an appropriate use of the water in that area.”
The Cowlitz watershed is among the areas currently under a state-declared drought emergency.
The concern about a depleted aquifer is one that is shared by many locals, who rely on wells for their water. The extraction of spring water could have consequences on the river as well. Salmon and other fish depend on cold water to survive, and rising temperatures have had devastating effects on fish populations. Spring water provides a regenerating source of cold water to the river system.
“Summer river temperatures depend a lot on the spring water, because a lot of the glacial melt is gone,” said Bill Iyall, chairman of the Cowlitz Tribe. “The volumes that they’re talking there are very significant. It’s very close to the river and it’s a cold water source — that could have significant impacts on the water quality of the river. … There’s definitely some red flags there.”
Water issues are among a litany of concerns that have been raised in response to the proposal. While the plant would no doubt change the landscape’s aesthetics, many are also worried about truck traffic, noise and light pollution, as well as loss of habitat for the elk and other wildlife that roam the area. The quiet valley, locals say, is just not a good fit for Crystal Geyser’s operation.
“There's plenty of other places for Crystal Geyser to put in a bottling plant, even in the area,” said local resident Craig Jasmer. “(They could) put it in an industrial park, but they want a particular view of the mountain, because they want to advertise that. But it's a residential community; it's not industrial.”
Indeed, Crystal Geyser’s website proudly shows the regional sources of its water — stunning photos of mountain peaks, rugged forests and pristine waters. Whether coincidence or not, many in the area — including this reporter — have seen Crystal Geyser ads popping up with frequency on social media and TV.
“We put our mountain on our bottle,” the voiceover for one video says, “because we bottle at our mountain source.”
Nowhere to be seen are the plants that extract and package the water.
The proposal comes as the water bottling industry as a whole faces more scrutiny, both regionally and nationwide. Many are starting to push back on the idea of allowing a private company to extract a region’s natural resource at little to no cost, package it in plastic — only about 30 percent of plastic bottles get recycled — and ship it elsewhere.
Opponents point to stories around the country — a depleted trout stream in Michigan, dried-up springs in California — as evidence of the bottled water industry’s ecological destruction. In the Northwest, efforts by bottling giant Nestle to extract water have been stymied by strong local opposition in places like Walla Walla and the Oregon cities of Cascade Lakes and Goldendale.
The fact that such proposals have caused intense backlash in recent years has made many skeptical, even amid the promise of tax revenue and jobs that the company says it will bring.
“Why aren’t 10 counties touting themselves, ‘Please come to our county and put your plant here’?” said Steve Jasmer, Craig’s father. “There’s nobody doing that. It’s quite the opposite. Every place they go, people fight them. … Why aren’t there people saying, ‘We have good water, put it here’?”
Another neighbor to the proposed plant is the Lewis County Public Utility District, which operates the Cowlitz Falls Campground directly to the west of the site. PUD executive director Chris Roden said the utility will be keeping a close eye on the project for the effects it might have on the campers, hikers, picnickers and boaters who like to use the area.
The PUD is also dependent on strong river flows for electricity generation at its Cowlitz Falls hydroelectric dam nearby, and Roden said it’s invested in preserving a strong fishery as well. The PUD intends to participate as a stakeholder in any environmental review.
“We want to make sure that we understand what it means to have that facility located adjacent to our property,” he said. “We can’t always decide what sites next to us. What we can do is enter into relationships with our neighbors or potential neighbors and make sure we’re not impeding on each other’s business.”
Crystal Geyser — the more well-known name of the company CG Roxane — says it is taking those concerns seriously, and it intends to be a good neighbor and environmental steward. Beykpour said the company will ensure the site has a sustainable aquifer before starting operations, and will take precautions to keep the water clean.
When asked about the noise and traffic concerns, he said the bottling operations will be contained within the plant, stifling external noise. He estimated just more than two semi trucks an hour will be visiting the plant. Neither noise nor traffic impacts will be “significant,” he said.
Crystal Geyser says the plant will support 20 to 30 “permanent and quality jobs,” with competitive pay and benefits. It has pledged to be active as a civic partner in the community.
Still, locals point to places like Mount Shasta, California, where Crystal Geyser is embroiled in a long-running legal fight with tribal and community groups over its extraction of water. That dispute involves the Crystal Geyser Water Company, which is technically a different legal entity than CG Roxane. However, the two are affiliates of the same Japanese company, Otsuka Pharmaceutical, and share the same California address.
The activists ultimately forced the company to conduct an environmental review of its project, and they’re now challenging the document in court for failing to adequately address their concerns.
“They’re very good at corporate spin,” said Bruce Hillman, president of We Advocate Thorough Environmental Review, a group opposing the project in Mount Shasta. “(Randle residents) should expect that any of their concerns — if they impede the development of that plant — will be ignored. They talk a good line about being concerned about the neighbors, but will not really do anything to alleviate those issues.”
In Weed, California, also near Mount Shasta, CG Roxane made a deal to purchase water supplied from springs owned by a lumber company. Those springs had been the source of Weed’s water supply, and the company told the city it would need to find a new source — privatizing and exporting what had long been a community resource. That shift, announced in 2016, is enmeshed in its own legal dispute.
Meanwhile, in Olancha, California, CG Roxane was named last year in a grand jury indictment over improper disposal of wastewater containing arsenic. Beykpour blamed the matter on a third-party transportation company that ignored “clear instructions” from Crystal Geyser, and also noted that the water in Randle does not have naturally-occurring arsenic.
Stories about Crystal Geyser’s operations nationwide have spread quickly on social media, as area residents grow more and more wary about their new neighbors.
“Crystal Geyser should expect that the public is going to have many questions and concerns about the ripple effect of their project, of their industrial facility,” said Lauren Goldberg, legal and program director with Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the Columbia River. “The public’s questions are informed by dozens of examples of water bottling plants that have had significant and harmful impacts on communities and watersheds.”
That extensive background of the industry’s harm to communities has galvanized local opposition in recent years, she added.
“There’s a lot of serious concerns that have been raised, and they’re well-founded based on the experience that other small towns have had with other water bottling corporations. We’re very skeptical about this project,” Goldberg said. “These large water bottling corporations will try to come into small towns with slick PR firms and try to win people over, and over and over again their corporate shenanigans are not able to prevail at the end of the day.”
Residents in Randle said they feel they’ve been targeted because they live in a sparsely populated, unincorporated area, an hour from the county seat.
“We were just ripe for the picking out here, but it doesn’t make it right to go ahead with it just because you can,” said Craig Jones, another nearby resident. “We’re dependent on our county, which is an hour away and treats us like a dirty backyard that they’re ashamed of. We’re not asking for any more services, just don’t screw our lives up.”
Amid the fear and anger, much confusion abounds about what the company will need to do to begin extracting water. Many believe county leaders have given Crystal Geyser an implicit go-ahead on the project. However, no official permit request has even reached the county yet, and officials say any application will receive extensive scrutiny.
At present, the company is operating under a preliminary permit issued by the state, which allows it to conduct exploratory drilling and install a test well. The results of that test will determine whether the state gives Crystal Geyser its withdrawal permit to take the water.
According to Mike Gallagher, section manager with the Washington State Department of Ecology, the company will have to demonstrate four things to earn the withdrawal permit: the water is physically and legally available, it will be put to beneficial use, will not impair senior water rights and is in the public interest.
In the square mile surrounding the site, the state has two other water rights claims on file, both for agricultural irrigation. Expanding out to 9 square miles, Gallagher said there are 62 wells in that radius.
“If it impairs any nearby wells, then there’s a problem there and we’d have to cross that bridge when we come to it as it comes to whether we’d approve or deny the permit,” he said.
Gallagher said he expects a report from Crystal Geyser in the next three or four months, after which the state will take a month or longer to analyze the data and make a decision. Both the applicant and the public have a right to appeal the decision.
If the state were to issue the extraction authority, the company would then need to procure a special use permit from Lewis County. That process, said Lee Napier, the county’s Community Development director, is an intensive one.
Crystal Geyser will have to conduct an environmental review and checklist under the State Environmental Policy Act. That review will look at water supply, traffic impacts, cultural sites and many other potential effects.
“It's a pretty complicated project,” Napier said. “I would suspect that this project is going to come in with quite a bit of environmental documentation.”
Most of the site, save for the northwest corner of the property, is designated as floodplain, meaning Crystal Geyser would need to do extensive mitigation work to be able to build there — especially for a project of the magnitude it’s proposing. The sliver of property that’s outside of the floodplain, however, is designated as a Critical Aquifer Recharge Area. That can also hamper development.
“Usually that's silty, sandy soil, very permeable,” said Karen Witherspoon, the county’s senior project planner. “When a use comes in, we look at it. If it’s one of these high-intensity uses, they need a report.”
The means the company would have to commission a study on the hydrology of the area to prove its project wouldn’t harm that aquifer. That hurdle, Witherspoon said, is still likely to be an easier route for the company than trying to develop in the floodplain.
The process may also involve a cultural study, especially since many historic tribal sites are located along waterways. If artifacts are found, it may require mapping the site, conducting archaeological work or establishing buffers to ensure they are undisturbed.
“I’m very familiar with the location of the plant,” said Iyall, the Cowlitz chairman. “It is an area of ancient use of the Cowlitz people. … I want to make sure that any cultural resources that might be disturbed are protected as well.”
Once the environmental studies are complete, the county will review the materials and write a staff report. Surrounding property owners will be given a 30-day notice of a hearing, and a Hearing Examiner will determine whether or not to approve the special use permit. That hearing will allow for testimony from the public.
In addition to quantifiable questions like water levels and truck traffic, the process is also designed to look into whether the project fits in the surrounding area. For locals concerned about the project, Witherspoon said that aspect is probably their best chance to influence the decision.
“The applicant has the burden to show that they are compatible or can be compatible (with the surrounding neighborhood),” she said. “That's where they look at traffic, noise, hours of operation, lighting. They’re looking to see not just the technical side of it, but how it fits. If there are neighbor concerns, that's the opportunity they have to come and voice those concerns.”
Napier said the county urges developers to find common ground with potential opponents before a permit hearing, rather than forcing the Hearing Examiner to decide between clashing entities.
“If you're doing something that your neighbors are going to be uncomfortable with, please go talk to them,” she said. “Don't bring that into our hearing.”
From start to finish, the special use permit process will likely take a minimum of six months, after which it would be subject to an appeal. From there, the company would move into permitting for the building itself, stormwater, septic and water hookups. That could take another 60 days.
Some bottling operations have drawn scrutiny for the minimal fees they pay local governments to siphon off their water. Napier said it’s premature to guess at what kind of financial windfall — if any — the county could expect from Crystal Geyser’s bottling.
“Without knowing the development and the impact, it would be difficult to say they would be obligated to pay something to the county,” she said. “That is the type of decision or actions that come out of the environmental review. It would be premature to expect something from them, because we don't have a program in place that would make that a definite yes.”
Though some seemingly expect to see bulldozers on the property any day, Napier said the review preceding any work will be rigorous and involve plenty of public comment. And while some are convinced county officials — who are largely pro-development — are foisting the project on Randle, commissioner Gary Stamper said he’s not yet taken a stance on the plant.
“I’m in a waiting mode too, just like most everyone else,” he said. “I’m doing my research so we can get up to speed on it when they do approach the county.”
Stamper — who represents the East County district where the project is planned — said he has heard daily from concerned constituents opposing the development.
“I’m elected by the citizens of Lewis County and District 3,” he said. “I’m going to listen very carefully to that, because I have the same concerns as far as what it’s going to do. … These are questions we’re going to have to look at.”
He acknowledged he had seen links about the company’s history in other locations online, many of which were negative. He added that he’s eager for the environmental assessment to begin, so he can hear the input of local tribes, Ecology and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
While the company has touted the jobs it will bring to the area, Stamper said he wanted to hear more details about the employment available at the plant, and whether it will be filled by local workers. He also hopes to see the company commit to using local contractors, suppliers and construction workers if they intend to build the facility.
While the tedious permitting process plays out, Randle residents aren’t waiting for regulators to weigh in as they organize their opposition. An informational meeting Sunday drew 25 to 30 residents, and they’re planning a town hall meeting June 26 to determine the next course of action. Stamper said he’s planning to attend that meeting to hear from his constituents.
Meanwhile, on June 24, residents plan to meet with a staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law & Policy to discuss the project and possible avenues to thwart it.
“It’s the kind of industry that is harmful to the surrounding environment in lots of different ways,” said Rolfe, CELP’s executive director. “Any court challenge would have to do with whether or not Ecology approved the (withdrawal) permit. That certainly is an option. … That would be something we would look at if they did issue the permit.”
In some cases, ballot measures have effectively stymied water-extraction efforts. In others, legal action has proven effective. While it’s unclear how the process will play out, it’s certain Crystal Geyser will have vehement opposition if it tries to move forward with the plant.
“We’ll certainly keep an eye on it,” said Iyall, the Cowlitz chairman. “We do have input on the permitting aspect of it. … The thing we would want to look for is what’s the value of the mitigation that might be offered if it ever was approved. For the loss of habitat and degradation of habitat, both attributed to the drawdown of water and the amount of plastic that comes out of that facility — it’s a huge number.”
Goldberg, the Columbia Riverkeeper policy expert, said such scrutiny is important when bottlers try to build projects in little-noticed areas.
“It’s a very targeted approach these corporations take when they’re looking to site in small communities,” she said. “What we know from other plants is they can have serious impacts on surrounding streams and rivers. They really have sprawling impacts, especially on small towns.”
Residents today talk about letting their grandkids ride bikes to the park, listening to owls from their porch, fishing the river and enjoying views of the valley. Many spent years building retirement homes in the area because they valued that rural character. They hope that way of life can be preserved.
“This is an assault on our lives here,” said Jones. “The whole concept of bringing semi truck loads full of water bottles back and forth through this community, it just doesn’t fit. Truck traffic, forklifts, machinery — it’s not only an eyesore, it’s not only obnoxiously loud and disruptive — it’s completely changing the atmosphere of our rural community.”