Crystal Geyser alleged to be illegally dumping arsenic
The area’s second major water exporter, Crystal Geyser Roxane in Olancha, has been dumping arsenic without authorization into a non-permitted pool since 1990. The plant’s disposal ponds—Arsenic Pond, East Pond, and Fire Pond—have been found to leak, have holes in the protective barriers, or run directly off onto open ground and have contaminated the groundwater beneath and near the bottling facility.
Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board issued notice of violations to the company in April following an investigation in October 2014. The extent of the contamination has yet to be determined.
Crystal Geyser has been ordered to perform further tests and has since stopped using the pools. The waste is now being packaged and trucked off to hazardous disposal sites. Crystal Geyser has until September 11 to complete the additional groundwater studies, and the company can face fines of $1,000 per day for not completing the report on time and up to $5,000 a day if Lahontan has to turn the matter over to the Attorney General.
Lahontan will provide the business with options and different methods for the clean up efforts.
Crystal Geyser Roxane headquarters in Calistoga did not return numerous phone calls made by The Sheet for comment.
Arsenic occurs naturally in water and at higher levels in Eastern Sierra groundwater and aquifers, with their close proximity to the Sierra Nevada and its mine of minerals leaching down with snow melt. The arsenic is filtered from the water before bottling and the waste placed in disposal ponds.
“Some people ask, ‘how can you let them keep operating?’” said Lauri Kemper, Assistant Executive Officer for Lahontan. She answers that Lahontan doesn’t believe what this violator is doing is something that deserves a cease and desists order, the highest and harshest penalty the board can deliver. Lahontan does not have the ability to “red tag” or close a project, business or operation, but they can impose strict penalties. Kemper said given Crystal Geyser’s vigilance and quick response to the violations, she did not foresee a need for stricter restrictions or penalties.
Lahontan has no authority on water extraction, but rather has authority on the other end, as in discharge and contamination from construction projects, to a factory’s waste. In fact California and Texas are the only two states in the union that have no standard regulations on groundwater. The California Division of Water Rights can use its power on surface water regulation, but there has never been legislation in the state that can reign over, or rein in, groundwater rights—until now.
Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1168, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, in September 2014. The law is intended to give some control of groundwater issues into the hands of local authority, as the bill states, “sustainable groundwater management is best achieved locally through the development, implementation, and updating of plans and programs based on the best available science.” The bill would allow local agencies, a single entity or group, to form a groundwater sustainability agency.
Three football fields
Crystal Geyser is also working on expanding its operation with a 200,000 square-foot bottling plant, approximately the size of three and a half football fields, at Cabin Bar Ranch, close to the existing 25,000 square-foot plant.
Crystal Geyser had come to the Inyo County Planning Department as early as 2008 with ideas for expanding its facilities, according to Inyo County Water Department Director Bob Harrington. This was long before the state’s historic drought conditions and after several heavy snow years.
According to staff at the Planning Department, Crystal Geyser initially filed for a permit to build an additional bottling plant on Cabin Bar Ranch, and the Board of Supervisors approved it. In 2010 Crystal Geyser asked permission to pipe water from Cabin Ranch to the existing bottling plant. This was not approved the Supervisors. Instead of appealing the pipe project, Crystal Geyser is going ahead with a new bottling facility and will pump water directly from the Cabin Ranch spring to the new facility. The plans are to extract approximately 300 acre-feet annually from Cabin Ranch, which is about what the existing plant currently uses.
It is unclear when the project for the new plant would break ground. Crystal Geyser would have to apply for permits for waste discharge at the new facility and for the existing facility after it cleans up the arsenic.
Kemper added that Lahontan is expected to revisit the aging Olancha bottling facility if Crystal Geyser asks for additional permitting.