Randle residents showed up in force yet again this week before the Lewis County Board of Commissioners, asking them to take action to protect them from Crystal Geyser’s proposed water bottling plant on the Cowlitz River — and the bullying tactics accidentally leaked by the company that include a threat to sue nearby residents.
Those hoping for a swift response were likely disappointed, as commissioners’ legal advisors urged them to exercise caution.
“This matter is not ripe yet for county action,” said county prosecutor Jonathan Meyer. “There’s really nothing to do. If the water rights issue comes up, Crystal Geyser as part of the application process will be required to publish notice, and that’s where the time opens up for there to be a formal comment by any concerned parties. When that comes up, then it’s ripe for discussion on the county’s behalf whether or not you want to take some kind of position. Until then, such action is unnecessary and premature. … I would again urge the commissioners not to make public comment on this.”
The proposal has drawn strong backlash from the community, whose residents have packed the audience at county commission meetings in recent weeks. Commissioners have said they share some of those concerns, and groups including the Cowlitz Tribal Council and Columbia Riverkeeper have taken official stances opposing the project.
Concern intensified last week when Crystal Geyser chief operating office Page Beykpour accidentally emailed The Chronicle a possible strategy that included an “astroturf” PR campaign designed to look like a local grassroots effort and suing the local neighborhood to “get them to the table.” The email stated that the project was likely “dead,” due to fierce local opposition, but the “long shot” tactics were nevertheless worth trying.
Monday, eight Randle residents spoke during the public comment portion of the commission meeting, urging their elected officials to take action. Steve Jasmer, one of the leaders in the opposition effort, spoke of the courage of the residents who had taken on an activist role far outside their comfort zone.
“Your turn, show us your courage,” he said to commissioners. “You have the power and the influence to stop this. Stop it now. … Don’t let it happen. Do not let boardroom corporate leadership snicker at what they pulled off in Lewis County.”
Bob Summers, another Randle resident, said Crystal Geyser’s plan to put a massive bottling plant in a quiet rural area should be a wakeup call for the county to change its zoning.
“Our request is not targeted at Crystal Geyser, our request is to protect the rural zones from any non-agriculture, non-forestry big business that might threaten our water resources, environment and way of life in Lewis County,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sally Clark added that the company’s tactics should jolt the county into taking immediate action.
“They’re out there planning to hire a PR firm, planning to plant supporters, threatening to sue the local newspaper for simply exposing the truth,” she said. “This is what we know. What might they still be hiding from us? … Stop this with a temporary injunction today. Hire a water rights attorney to garner advice today. Tell Crystal Geyser Roxane to leave and not look back.”
At Tuesday’s meeting between commissioners and the prosecutor’s office, Meyer said that there’s no “basis” for an injunction at this point in the process, since there’s been little beyond “preliminary discussion.”
“Right now the biggest obstacle I see with Crystal Geyser is Crystal Geyser,” he said. “They can’t even send a correct email. ... If somebody wants to seek an injunction, certainly it’s not going to be this county at this time.”
In an interview following the meeting, Meyer said that if Crystal Geyser followed through with any of the lawsuits discussed in the email, the county could take action — as the message clearly showed they intend to use the legal threat as a bullying strategy.
“If a lawsuit is filed, that would be the potential for an opportunity for sanctionable action against Crystal Geyser, because there’s no indication in the email that there’s a basis for the lawsuit, and they’re talking about using it as a tactic to get what they want,” he said. “That’s something we would have to look at closely if that were to occur.”
County commissioners expressed dismay at Crystal Geyser’s threats to their constituents, but gave no indication they plan to take action beyond waiting their turn to weigh in on the permitting process.
“I’m still looking forward to getting the documents that tell us what needs to happen when, where’s the public input from the prosecuting attorney’s office and Community Development, including (the Department of) Ecology, so we can follow what needs to happen and when,” said commissioner Edna Fund.
In a previous interview, Fund said she was “speechless” after hearing the contents of the email.
Commissioner Gary Stamper, who represents the district in which Crystal Geyser is hoping to operate, said he believes the accidental release of the email was a huge setback for the company.
“If they're going to pick on little old Lewis County and the residents of Randle, I think they've got bigger problems,” he said. “It doesn't do any good for them to print that information out there — it's not helping their cause wherever they decide to go next, because that will follow them.”
Later, he added that he intends to share his concerns as a “private citizen” during the public comment period of the company’s water rights permitting process with Ecology.
Meanwhile, commissioner Bobby Jackson said he was troubled by the company’s unwillingness to have a dialogue with county leaders or residents.
“The fact that Crystal Geyser has never really made an attempt to reach out to the county, and it sounds like they’ve made no attempt to have any kind of public meetings to have discussions with the community about what their intentions are — that concerns me,” he said. “Any company that wants to come in and develop in Lewis County, I would think that they’d want to sit down with the leadership and have that discussion, what their plans are, what their intentions are. I hope at some point they will reach out and talk to us.”
Despite those concerns, commissioners stopped short of pledging to stop the project — statements of the kind which the county’s legal advisors have warned could put them at risk for a lawsuit.
During public comment, several residents singled out the Lewis County Economic Development Council and executive director Matt Matayoshi, who coordinated with Crystal Geyser early in the process and initially spoke favorably of the potential for jobs associated with the project.
Stamper spoke up in Matayoshi’s defense, saying that the EDC did not recruit Crystal Geyser but was instead approached by the company. In an interview, Matayoshi said the council has not had contact with Crystal Geyser for “several weeks.”
“They had their own site selection process,” he said. “We provided them information on permitting and connected them with local permit agencies. That was the extent of our participation in the project.”
Asked if he was concerned over the tactics outlined in the email, Matayoshi responded: “It sounds like they’re not moving forward. That’s all I have to add.”