Crystal Geyser in hot water for secretly disposing of arsenic-filled waste
Bottled water giant Crystal Geyser has been charged by a grand jury with 16 counts of violating environmental and hazardous waste laws, after the jury viewed evidence that the company improperly disposed of toxic waste, a Department of Justice press release said. According to court records disclosed on July 19, Crystal Geyser created an “Arsenic Pond” in a remote part of eastern California between Death Valley and The Sequoia National Forest, and then didn’t disclose that water they pumped out of the pond and delivered to water treatment plants was full of the poisonous heavy metal.
Crystal Geyser’s parent company, CG Roxane, along with two contracted companies, each face a maximum of $8 million in fines if convicted. “This case was opened due to the hazards posed by illegal management and transportation of hazardous wastes,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Jay Green of the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement program in California.
Crystal Geyser harvests water with naturally-occurring arsenic, it filters the water to make it safe for bottling, and in the process has to back-flush its filters for re-use. When the filters are back-flushed for cleaning, thousands of gallons of contaminated water were diverted to a holding pond, the indictment said.
In 2014, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control notified Crystal Geyser that the wastewater was deemed hazardous waste and needed to be transported and treated in compliance with environmental and hazardous waste laws. The Department of Justice said that the investigation and indictment did not concern the safety or quality of Crystal Geyser’s bottled water.
Crystal Geyser stopped diverting wastewater into the Arsenic Pond in October 2014, the indictment said. The company was then left with the task of disposing of the poisonous water and the contaminated storing pond. In 2015, Crystal Geyser hired United Pumping Services and United Storm Water, both based in Los Angeles County, to drain and transport the arsenic-contaminated water. Some of the water was transported to a hazardous waste facility in Los Angeles County. The remaining water was transported to a facility in Fontana, CA that was not permitted to the treat hazardous waste.
The three companies allegedly attempted to secretly transport the waste by not disclosing it on manifests as required by the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act and Resource Conservation Act. In March and May of 2015, the indictment said, the companies repeatedly failed to tell authorities that they were transporting arsenic.
Laura Cunningham, California Director of Western Watersheds Project, said that pollution from industrial waste has been a particularly common issue in California’s recent history. In the case of mining operations, toxic chemicals can similarly leach into ponds and pose serious health risks when they evaporate and become airborne. “When the water that is holding chemicals like this evaporates, it creates a toxic dust that can blow around,” Cunningham said. “It could then settle in other ponds, streams, and rivers. It could settle in the groundwater.” If exposed to toxic levels of arsenic, poisoning can result in severe digestion issues, skin discoloration, liver and kidney failure, destruction of red blood cells, and death.
United States Attorney Nick Hanna said this negligence threatens the health and safety of California’s communities. “Our nation’s environmental laws are specifically designed to ensure that hazardous wastes are properly handled from beginning to end – from the point of generation to the point of disposal,” Hanna said. “The alleged behavior of the three companies charged in this indictment undermines that important objective and jeopardizes the safety of our community.”
Water safety advocates question whether regulations can keep the bottled water industry in check. Adam Scow, California director of Food and Water Watch, said he doubted the fine would amount to a threat to the company’s business model. “I think it’s time for the state of California to assess whether it is in their interest for private companies to bottle water,” Scow said. “Public oversight of water is critical. Water is our most important public resource.”