Scores of cars lined either side of U.S. Highway 12 Wednesday evening, spilling over from the full parking lot at the Randle Fire Hall. Inside the building, close to 250 people packed into the meeting room, with dozens more listening to an audio speaker stationed outside.
The attendees came from all over the Pacific Northwest, but most were local to Randle or East Lewis County. Nearly all were there to register their opposition to the proposed water bottling facility that Crystal Geyser hopes to build on its newly purchased property along the Cowlitz River.
“This could turn out to be a very, very long dilemma,” said Wes Randle McMahan. “We have to stay involved, and we can’t just rely on a few people to do it. It’s got to be all of us.”
McMahan is the great-great grandson of James Randle, the town’s founder. He recently moved back to the area and lives about a mile from the proposed plant on 807 Peters Road. Like many nearby residents, he’s concerned about noise, pollution, truck traffic — and the disturbance of the way of life in the quiet, rural valley.
The hall was filled with local residents, members of the Cowlitz Tribe, fishermen, elected officials and environmental activists from throughout the region. Many held signs that said “Water is Life” and registered boisterous opposition at any mention of Crystal Geyser’s plans.
Craig Jasmer, who led the town hall, said he purchased a property nearby just days before he learned Crystal Geyser was planning to build a plant. He first got wind of the proposal when he heard the noise from the company’s exploratory drilling.
“Crystal Geyser has not published any public notice on this,” he said. “This corporation, if any of you have Googled Crystal Geyser, I think you’ve found they’re not very reputable.”
Crystal Geyser — the better-known moniker for the company CG Roxane, an affiliate of Japanese-based Otsuka Pharmaceutical — is proposing to build a 100,000 square foot plant on the 80-acre lot it purchased last month. That building, about the size of a Walmart, is one many feel would be out of place in the largely undeveloped valley, surrounded by forested mountainsides.
County commissioner Gary Stamper said he met with Crystal Geyser representatives in April, asking them why they had chosen the Randle site rather than an industrial park.
“I am not a person who takes this stuff lightly. All of your concerns are my concerns,” he said. “This is an anomaly, because we’ve never had anything like this. (Industrial operations) always come to the ports. … This site is a bad site.”
The crowd thanked Stamper for listening and sharing his perspective, though the county has not yet received an official permit application on which it could take a stand.
County manager Erik Martin also shared with the crowd, outlining what the permitting process might look like if Crystal Geyser applies to build the facility with the county. Though the bureaucratic procedures are largely very technical, Martin said the input of locals — especially as it relates to the project’s fit in the community — is still of great importance.
“I have to say wow, because projects just don’t get this type of support and involvement from the community,” he said. “It matters, it really does. Thank you all for coming.”
According to Martin, the county’s only contact from Crystal Geyser has been a letter sent from chief operations officer Page Beykpour on June 17. Beykpour said the company is continuing to “explore options,” and if the Randle property is not the “chosen site,” it plans to sell it or convert it to another use.
The company has obtained a preliminary permit from the state for exploratory drilling and a test well. The results of that testing will help determine whether it can procure a withdrawal permit, with which it hopes to extract 400 gallons per minute from springs on the property.
Some at the meeting said their concern is the facility’s effect on the aquifer and the watershed. Many worried that wells would go dry, river flows would diminish and water temperatures would increase.
“These salmon and steelhead that are in this upper Cowlitz are (Endangered Species Act) listed,” said Greg King, vice president of the Friends of the Cowlitz nonprofit fishing advocacy group. “If they don’t have any water, they’re not going to make it. … This aquifer is huge, but those fish need every drop.”
Greg LaDue-Grove, a member of the Cowlitz Tribe, said the waters of the Cowlitz River watershed have sustained life in this region for thousands of years.
“Now it’s your responsibility too,” he said. “I see people here like me that have grandkids. What will you leave them? … I’m so happy to see so many of you standing up, and I hope you’ll continue past this.”
Many of the speakers thanked the tribal members for attending, noting that their presence adds strength to the alliance opposing the plant. Teri Graves, another Cowlitz member who spoke, said she had seen the Cowlitz Glacier recede while working as a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. The community support, she said, was a welcome show that the tribe is not alone in this fight.
“I look at this room and I see allies, and I’m so grateful for you guys,” she said. “We are so honored that you are allies with us.”
Others joined the event with their own stories of opposition to other proposed bottling operations in the Northwest. Advocate Julia DeGraw was among the leaders who fought Nestle’s efforts to build a plant in the Columbia River Gorge. The key, she said, is joining the battle early, because it’s difficult to stop an operation once it’s underway. The turnout for the town hall was cause for optimism, she added.
“You are so poised right now in this moment to win this fight,” she said. “I’m really excited to see this level of organization and momentum. … This is a political decision. Your political leaders can say no, and that’s what we’re here to ask.”
Deanna Busdieker, a former city councilor in Cascade Locks, Oregon, shared her story of working to block a proposed bottling operation in her town. Her message was simple.
“Give them as much hell as you can,” she said.
Fred Suter, vice chair of the Loo Wit group of the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, said the organization has taken notice of the fight in Randle — which has drawn similar concerns to a proposed mine nearby along the Green River.
“I’m amazed that everyone is coming together here,” he said. “This is an amazing group.”
Many at the meeting discussed the most productive ways of opposing the plant. The Lewis County Water Alliance, a group leading efforts to block the development, collected fundraising dollars and asked people to join its Facebook page. Jasmer handed out a fact sheet on the process, and opponents were urged to contact the Washington State Department of Ecology to weigh in on the withdrawal permit. To obtain the permit, Crystal Geyser must show that the development is in the “public interest.”
Meanwhile, Martin said any county permitting would go through a hearings examiner — who would also take into consideration the concerns of the community.
“Under that process, you can write letters, you can send emails, you can appeal,” he said. “You can also come to the hearing and talk to the hearings examiner himself about what you thought about it.”
Some noted that concerns about the aquifer — while legitimate — might not be able to demonstrate enough scientific certainty to sink the project. What’s more obvious is how fundamentally the plant would change the nature of the rural area, where residents value the views and the quiet, and kids ride their bikes along the little-trafficked road. Keeping pressure on those concerns, they noted, might be the most viable legal path to blocking development.
Regardless of strategy, the sentiment of opposition was nearly unanimous Wednesday evening, as was the united community spirit demonstrated by the turnout — an impressive crowd for any town hall, let alone one in a tiny, rural area. The sentiment was one of optimism, as speaker after speaker expressed surprise at the number and breadth of supporters who had showed up. King, the fishing advocate, spoke for everyone, drawing loud applause.
“Let’s not lose this,” he said. “Let’s keep our foot on their necks and not let it up.”