Water is critical to maintaining the balance of all life on Earth. As humans go, the United Nations estimates that each person needs about 50 to 100 liters a day for drinking and washing. It must be safe, accessible, and affordable. Some corporations claim ownership of fresh water sources to bottle and sell for profit. Others use water as a tool to extract oil and gas from the ground. In this episode of Making Contact, we’ll hear from communities fighting to keep big water bottling companies out of rural Oregon, and to protect water from oil and gas contamination in New Mexico.
Monica Lopez: This week on Making Contact: Water is critical to maintaining the balance of all life on Earth as humans go. The United Nations estimates that each person needs about 50 to 100 liters a day for drinking and washing. It must be safe, accessible and affordable. And then there are large corporations that claim ownership of fresh water sources to bottle and sell for profit.
Craig Jasmer: We were sitting on our property and heard well drilling operations and we wondered what was going on. Who was digging a well? Well, a neighbor informed us that the previous property owner had sold to Crystal Geyser. There was never any public notice published, which was really frustrating.
Monica Lopez: Other companies use water as a tool to extract oil and gas from the ground.
Rebecca Sobel: And until legislators can provide 100 percent assurance that there’s no risk to public health, there’s no risk to the environment, and there’s no risk to freshwater resources in the management of oil and gas waste, or produced water, regulators should move very cautiously, if at all.
Monica Lopez: This is “Wolves at the Well: The Corporate Grab of Public Water” on Making Contact. I’m Monica Lopez.
Monica Lopez: When you reach for that plastic bottle of water do you know where the water inside came from? Well, much of bottled water is sourced from municipal taps. Expensive premium bottled water actually does come from pristine springs located in remote rural areas. Oregon producer Barbara Bernstein explores the impacts that large water bottling facilities have on these rural areas and why residents in targeted communities are fighting back against water bottlers like Nestle and Crystal Geyser.
Barbara Bernstein: For the vast majority of human existence and civilization, water has been perceived as a common resource not to be owned and bought and sold. As we head into a climate crisis, we’ve really got to make sure a water gets defined as a public resource.
Barbara Bernstein: The Pacific Northwest is a water abundant region, with many small towns reeling from the loss of their primary industry: logging. The commercial water bottling industry has been eyeing many of these communities as prime locations to site large water bottling plants. Cascade Locks is a small logging town in the Columbia River Gorge, about 40 miles east of Portland, Oregon, whose lumber mills shut down in 1988.
Aurora Del Val It was pretty devastating to the local economy and I think to the social fabric of the community when the mill closed down.
Barbara Bernstein: Aurora del Val lives in Cascade Locks and was the campaign director for the local water alliance.
Aurora Del Val People here were understandably desperate because this is an economically depressed area and a prime candidate for corporations like Nestlé to come in and say, Hey, we can save your town.
Barbara Bernstein: In 2008, Nestle approached city leaders with an offer to build a water bottling facility that would draw water from a pristine spring just outside town. They were warmly received by the Cascade Locks mayor and city manager and most of the city council. Julia DeGraw was a Northwest organizer for Food and Water Watch, one of several environmental organizations that led the fight to stop Nestle from building their water bottling plant.
Julia DeGraw: Anybody in Cascade Locks who didn’t want to see a multinational corporation with Nestle’s track record of damaging local water resources coming into their town were very scared, frankly, to speak out against their elected leadership and to disagree with their neighbors.
Aurora Del Val The mayor and the city council and the city manager, they were trying to silence us. We’d have members keep going to the city council meetings and also the Port of Cascade Locks meetings and say this is not a done deal.
Barbara Bernstein: As the opponents of Nestle’s water bottling plant became more frustrated and angry, they also began to get more organized.
Aurora Del Val: We ended up demanding that we wanted a true Town Hall meeting, not a Nestle sponsored town hall meeting.
Julia DeGraw: Every other public meeting had been hosted by Nestle and the moderator they hired. So all of a sudden, there is this just boiling point where people showed up and could actually ask their elected officials direct questions about why are we doing this and how is this in our best interests.
Aurora Del Val: One thing that came up in the town hall meeting was why not put it to a vote to the city? But we were advised that doing a countywide measure would spread the news about the danger of having these water extractors come in.
Barbara Bernstein: As word of Nestle’s plans got out to the rest of Hood River County, where Cascade Locks is situated, opposition swelled even though the plant was still favored by many Cascade Locks residents and nearly all its elected officials.
Julia DeGraw: Most of the time, when Nestle wants to open up a water bottling facility the fight never goes beyond the city or county level. The water that Nestlé wanted to bottle was spring water that was used by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, a state agency, for a fish hatchery. What they did not anticipate was that a state agency had to go through a process to make this public water available to a multinational corporation for water bottling purposes. And it gave all the organizations that eventually formed out of the Gorge Coalition an opportunity to make this a state wide issue.
Julia DeGraw: We’re talking about water, which is a common public resource owned by every Oregonian and Nestlé, which trucks water up to five hundred miles away from their water bottling sites. So the impact wasn’t going to stick just in Cascade Locks.
Barbara Bernstein: In 2015, local activists formed the local water alliance to launch a ballot measure to make commercial water bottling plants and shipping water out of the county for commercial uses illegal in Hood River County. While the measure did not have majority support in the city of Cascade Locks, it found broad support across the rest of the county.
Aurora Del Val: Because Hood River County produces a lot of food for the region, for the nation, We really did a lot of outreach with farmers on both sides of the river. We got over a 100 local businesses and over 60 farms and orchards to sign on and support us.
Barbara Bernstein: In May 2016, the ballot initiative passed with 69 percent of the vote. However, in the city of Cascade Locks, the initiative was defeated by a narrow margin. Ballot initiative proponents steeled themselves for the city to appeal the measure, while hoping that Oregon governor, Kate Brown, would step in and stop the water rights exchange that would allow Nestle to use the spring water.
Julia DeGraw: It was such a high to pass it, and then it was so disappointing to have just a complete lack of action on the governor’s part. It’s just frustrating to know that we had to keep the fight going where we generated a bunch of phone calls and emails to the governor. So she got a lot of contacts from citizens saying like, please don’t do this, right smack dab in the middle of Governor Brown’s reelection campaign. I think she recognized that in a contentious election cycle, she does not want to be the governor who is standing by while Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is making water available to Nestle for water bottling. So Governor Brown publicly came out and said it is not in the best interest of our state to allow ODFW to do a water rights exchange and to please withdraw their application.
Aurora Del Val: Finding that out, I felt like I had five hundred pounds lift from my shoulders, because the city was getting geared up for a battle to appeal.
Barbara Bernstein: About a year after Cascade Locks drove Nestle out of the gorge, a similar water battle erupted 100 miles north in the tiny community of Randle, Washington.
Craig Jasmer: We were sitting on our property and heard, well, drilling operations and we wondered what was going on. Who was digging a well?
Barbara Bernstein: Craig Jasmer is a Randle resident and a founding member of the Lewis County Water Alliance.
Craig Jasmer: A neighbor informed us that the previous property owner had sold to Crystal Geyser. There was never any public notice published, which was really frustrating.
Alex Brown: They paid close to seven hundred thousand for the property when it was valued at something in the two hundred thousands.
Barbara Bernstein: Alex Brown was a local reporter with the Chronicle covering Lewis county during the Crystal Geyser Incident.
Alex Brown: That certainly raised a few eyebrows given the opposition that these proposals have faced in so many small communities. It really did seem like they were trying to fly under the radar as much as they possibly could.
Craig Jasmer: Initially, we were shocked as to why Crystal Geyser would have purchased the property out here, because we knew that the county zoning wouldn’t allow such an industry out there. And then as we started our investigation, what we found was that the zoning had recently been changed to allow for food and beverage manufacturing of this size in our zone
Alex Brown: They were interested in allowing craft breweries and wineries who wanted to have some sort of onsite tasting. But ultimately, that change in the zoning ended up opening up a loophole for Crystal. Geyser to come in. Randle’s a quiet rural area, folks, when they started hearing about this proposal, were going “OK. I retired out here in the countryside and now we’re going to have a plant the size of a Wal-Mart. We’re gonna have semi truck traffic going up and down the road where my grandkids ride their bikes”. People started to raise concerns about well water and the aquifer being depleted/ Very quickly it became a fairly organized movement.
Craig Jasmer: Initially, we gathered a small group of our neighbors and decided that we needed to stop it, but we wouldn’t be able to stop it just ourselves. So we’ve organized a town hall meeting in Randle and invited the county commissioner, the county manager who both showed up.
Alex Brown: By my count, there are at least 300 people there, including many who couldn’t even get into the building, who were just listening on speakers outside.
Craig Jasmer: We had some spokespersons from the Cowlitz Indian tribe. We got the facts that we had discovered from public records requests when the community heard these facts. They were outraged. They all came together and knew that it was going to take all of them to stop it.
Alex Brown: Part of the reason the response in Randle was so organized and effective was that they did communicate with people from Cascade Locks and some of these other communities who have gone to war with some of these bottling companies and fought successfully or not against a lot of these proposals.
Craig Jasmer: We started communicating with our local government, with the state government, making waves wherever we could.
Alex Brown: People were showing up in force to county commission meetings for months where you’d have people driving two hours across the county to show up and speak.
Craig Jasmer: We’d have 30 people who gave a three minute talk on Crystal Geyser and basically took over every meeting. They knew that we were a force to be reckoned with and that they had to do something, otherwise they were going to continue to have a lot of interruptions in their meetings and not get anything done.
Alex Brown: Pretty much at all levels of county government people were telling me they had never seen this level of engagement on an issue, let alone from a small rural community an hour away from the county seat.
Craig Jasmer: Basically, what we were talking about doing was just putting a halt on any permit applications for food and beverage manufacturing until they studied that zoning criteria and decided whether or not they wanted to keep it the way it was, if Crystal Geyser had gone ahead and submitted an application with the county prior to that moratorium being in effect, they would have been grandfathered in and they would have a bottling plant there today.
Barbara Bernstein: The people in Randle decided that they needed to act not only on a county level, but also on the state level.
Craig Jasmer: This wasn’t the first time that these bottling companies have tried to come into Washington or into Oregon. And it’s always these small towns in the rural areas that are targeted. They’re the ones who have the least amount of defense against these big corporations. We felt like it was the neighborly thing to do to try to educate the state on what we had learned at the county level and try to protect all of our neighbors throughout the state.
Barbara Bernstein: In the middle of this contentious battle Crystal Geyser’s COO sent an email to Chronicle reporter Alex Brown requesting that he write an article about how other communities have benefited from having a Crystal Geyser bottling facility sited in their community. Brown responded that since they refused to go on the record with him, he would not print their PR. To his surprise he received back a revealing email from the CEO.
Alex Brown: My impression is that he intended to forward that e-mail to the company president, but accidentally replied to me, essentially saying The Chronicle’s not gonna play ball and reprint our PR. Everyone’s against us. This project is probably dead. But here’s a last ditch plan we can try to use. To sue the local subdivision preemptively and just use very strong arm tactics to try to get the project through when they clearly lost in the court of public opinion at that point. They were somewhat flabbergasted that we intended to print that information. So very quickly had a multi-billion dollar law firm threaten to sue us and put a restraining order on us if we attempted to publish it. We knew that that was all a bluff and so we ran it in the next day’s newspaper. The opposition, got even louder and more unified, and it pretty much directly led to county commissioners revising and clarifying the code to disallow large scale water bottling for commercial purposes, which in effect killed the project and marked a successful end to this local movement.
Barbara Bernstein: The Chronicle story inspired a bill introduced in the Washington State Senate that would ban groundwater extraction for commercial bottling. Craig Jasmer with the Lewis County Water Alliance.
Craig Jasmer: The idea of the bill was that you’re not able to apply for a permit for a water right in the state of Washington if the purpose is to take the water out of the ground and bottle it and ship it out of the state.
Barbara Bernstein: The bill did pass the state Senate, but in the House, it did not make it out of committee and so was killed, at least for now.
Craig Jasmer: It was disheartening to see the corporate lobbyists come in and explain why they should vote against it. Really no reason other than for corporate profits.
Aurora Del Val: We need to have a much more widespread policy to protect public water because it’s battle fatigue for small town people to have to do this over and over again.
Barbara Bernstein: Aurora del Val Cascade Locks Local Water Alliance.
Aurora Del Val: And I hope that Washington will be the first state in the nation to make commercial water bottling illegal for making contact.
Barbara Bernstein: For Making Contact, This is Barbara Bernstein.
Monica Lopez: You’re listening to Wolves at the Well on Making Contact. Making Contact is offered for free to radio stations across the country and around the world. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making_contact.
Monica Lopez: Coming up: While some companies are going after fresh water sources to sell for a profit, others use some combination of fresh and what’s known as produced water to extract oil and gas from the ground. We’ll hear from producer Elizabeth Miller when we return.
Monica Lopez: As climate change makes for increasing drought and heat in the southwestern United States, New Mexico is also facing high demand on its water supplies from the oil and gas industry, and a glut of wastewater. The state is studying ways to reuse that water, both inside and outside the oilfield, leading the way in research and technology development that could shape policy and practices around the nation. But to some, the state is foolishly opening itself to increased risk from toxic waste. Producer Elizabeth Miller has the story.
Elizabeth Miller: In January, an oil and gas well pipeline that runs100 feet from Penny Aucoin and D. George’s home in southern New Mexico burst, spraying their house, yard and livestock with oil well wastewater. In the months since they’ve had to euthanize the chickens that were covered with that water as well as a dog that drank some of it. The oil company responsible for the spill, WPX, tested the yard for toxic compounds and radiation. But Aucoin and George worry it wasn’t comprehensive and are frustrated that contaminated soil wasn’t removed. The company is not, to their knowledge, been fined for the spill.
Penny Aucoin: We’re still waiiting for a resolution. There is probably very little resolution. They took and sprayed a little microbe blaze on the property that probably took away the smell of the gas and that’s about it. Because the trees are dying, they have black stuff going up ’em. There’s no birds in our trees. There is no, I mean, I don’t even see bugs out in my grass. It’s, there’s nothing growing. It’s dead. Everything out there is dead. It’s there’s no resolution. Absolutely none.
Elizabeth Miller: The water that covered their home is known as produced water. Some of it is freshwater used to frack the well. But the majority of it comes from underground reservoirs as old as the oil itself. It is often very salty and it is always laced with the chemicals used to hydraulically fracture an oil well, as well as heavy metals and even radioactive materials. New Mexico produced 329 million barrels of oil in 2019. Each barrel of oil brought with it four to seven barrels of produced water. The New Mexico Environment Department estimates 90 percent of that wastewater is pumped back underground for storage: permanently removed from the water cycle. New Mexico sees less than 20 inches of rain per year. It’s a water scarce area. The search for new ways to conserve water prompted New Mexico lawmakers in 2019 to approve a bill to strengthen regulations and encourage oil and gas companies to reuse water rather than dispose of it. But the bill also tasked the Environment Department with drafting rules for reusing oil industry wastewater outside of the oilfield. That could potentially include watering crops and perhaps even someday supplying drinking water taps. Proponents said the measure had the potential to turn the desert green.
Nathan Small: There is ample space to have a, an optimistic outlook.
Elizabeth Miller: Representative Nathan Small, who hails from southern New Mexico, sponsored the bill. He says it’s far too soon to say what the research will produce, but he’s hopeful.
Nathan Small: You know, not only must the science be there, be sound, be safe, of course there also must be ways that are economical, that work for communities and all different stakeholders, including private sector stakeholders, including conservation stakeholders, to help implement some of these potential solutions and approaches at a scale that is appropriate.
Elizabeth Miller: But environmental advocates like Rebecca Sobel with Wild Earth Guardians worry the state may be putting public health, the environment and its rare freshwater resources at risk of contamination.
Rebecca Sobel: People are rightfully asking questions about the public health impacts of these toxic, hazardous radioactive materials. And until legislators can provide 100 percent assurance that there’s no risk to public health, there’s no risk to the environment, and there’s no risk to freshwater resources in the management of oil and gas waste, or produced water, regulators should move very cautiously, if at all.
Elizabeth Miller: A rule on reusing produced water for other uses outside of the industry is likely several years out, says the state’s water protection division director, Rebecca Roose.
Rebecca Roose: Our rulemaking process is, of, you know, really getting into the details of what treatment is available and what treatment’s needed and what analytics are needed in order for produced water to be used for any purposes outside of oil and gas. We’re focusing on filling some very important science and technology gaps.
Elizabeth Miller: Produced water contains a lot of salt, as well as toxic compounds and heavy metals, including lead and mercury, and in some places, radioactive compounds. Those contaminants can cause cancer and endocrine disruption, among other severe human health problems. Sobel, with WildEarth Guardians, says it’s what’s unknown that’s cause for concern.
Rebecca Sobel: Less than one quarter of the nearly 12,000 chemicals that have been identified in produced water can even be detected through standard analytical methods. This is a huge barrier to fully understanding the public health and environmental impacts of oil and gas waste for use. How can we know what the risks are when we don’t know what’s in it?
Elizabeth Miller: Research from oil fields in Ohio and Louisiana found radioactive residue from produced water on frequently used equipment, including trucks that could expose workers to harmful carcinogens. Roose says the share of those radioactive compounds in the state’s oil wells presents yet another area for study. And while environmentalists like Sobol argue radioactive waste can’t be remediated by any method other than diluting it, Roose says radioactive compounds are not uncommon in New Mexico’s groundwater, and there is technology for removing them. Could these measures, as some have said, someday turn the desert green?
Rebecca Roose: We’re excited to be moving in this direction in the state of New Mexico, but we’re also cautious. So I don’t want to get ahead of the science representative.
Elizabeth Miller: Representative Small acknowledges the balance here between enabling new technology to develop through policies that permit its use and not letting that policy get so far ahead of the science that it puts people and drinking water at risk.
Nathan Small: And I think as we look across these many different areas, we have seen just the application of innovative approaches guided by strong values and sound science that enable people and environments to co-exist and to work with scarce, scarce water resources. But, again, the terms of the day to day research, even the overall arc of that research, I think we have set some very strong standards. We’ve put additional safeguards. That is one of our biggest jobs. And until that scientific process is undertaken and till some of this information comes back, I think it’s inappropriate for us to say one way or the other what will or will not be.
Elizabeth Miller: New Mexico’s findings could have national or even international implications. The state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a memorandum in 2018 committing to work together to break ground on the science and the policy guidelines for reusing produced water. Roose, with the water protection division, says the state is looking to lead.
Rebecca Roose: And the way we’re approaching it is setting us apart and we have federal agencies involved who are viewing the work that we’re doing in New Mexico as leading edge and as not just likely to help us set forward good regulations based in sound science in the state of New Mexico, but influence what other states do influence perhaps what U.S. EPA does down the road for this particular sector. And so a lot of eyes on us.
Elizabeth Miller: New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which oversees the oil and gas industry, recently approved new guidelines for reusing that wastewater within the industry. But even that prompts some concerns for environmental advocates like Sobel, most of them over spills when this water is handled and trucked to facilities.
Rebecca Sobel: An unregulated, toxic, hazardous and radioactive substance should not be allowed to be regulated as water and giving the fracking industry this free pass to pollute In New Mexico not only endangers the health of New Mexicans, but endangers everyone and everything downstream.
Elizabeth Miller: Produced water spills, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified as a source of potential contamination to the drinking water supply are not illegal in New Mexico. Only failing to submit and complete a remediation plan is against the law. The state has recorded more than 7000 of these spills over the last decade. For Penny Aucoin, the homeowner whose house and yard was sprayed with oil well water, it’s a point of great concern.
Penny Aucoin: You’re going to continue to have accidents over and over and over again, and then you’re going to have people getting sick, dogs dying, livestock dying. And not only that, now they’re going to make it sound like nothing ever bad ever happens because again, there’s no body being fined. And my daughter is growing up in this.
Elizabeth Miller: The meeting to present their first draft of the rules to reduce produced water in the oilfield, drew comments from Youth United for Climate Crisis Action or Yucca..
Yang Toledo: Ya’ at’eeh, Hello, my name is Yang Toledo. I come from the Dine nations in Farmington, New Mexico. I am a first generation graduate from the New Mexico School for the Arts and I am currently attending Fort Lewis College. I am a part of the steering committee Youth United for Climate Crisis Action Steering Committee. I’m a spokesperson for the Dinee people.
Elizabeth Miller: When Toledo was a high school student driving to and from her hometown and her high school in Santa Fe, she would count the oil wells visible from the highway. Sometimes she saw more than 200. In her comments on these new rules for produced water, Toledo spoke from her heart as a concerned local resident and indigenous community member.
Yang Toledo: The Produced Water Act is really threatening our indigenous people’s resources. And so we have to live through these environmental effects that our elected officials decide for us. But they never have stepped foot in our lifestyles, or the struggles we have to go through to access this clean water and to actually have breathable air.
Elizabeth Miller: Her conclusion was simple.
Yang Toledo: If the oil and gas industries don’t know where to put the produced water, they should just stop fracking.
Elizabeth Miller: New Mexico’s legislators have twice seen a bill to put a four year moratorium on fracking. But unlike the produced water legislation, which passed both houses with strong support, the fracking ban has yet to make it beyond its first committee hearings. Lawmakers looked at the price tag of an estimated 3.5 billion dollars in revenue from the oil and gas industry in four years and said it’s not an option the state can afford to consider. For Making Contact I’m Elizabeth Miller.
Monica Lopez: You’ve been listening to Wolves at the Well: the Corporate Grab of Public Water on Making Contact. The stories in today’s episode were produced by Barbara Bernstein and Elizabeth Miller. This show was produced by Anita Johnson and Monica Lopez. The Making Contact team is Executive Eirector Sonya Green, Director of Distribution and Production Initiatives. Lisa Rudman, show producers Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani and Monica Lopez, web updates: Sabine Blaizin, production assistant Emily Rose Thorn. And I’m your host this week. Monica Lopez. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.