How This Small Town Is Winning the Water War Against Nestle
By Alexis Bonogofsky, Truthout
Donna Diehl, a 55-year-old school bus driver from Kunkletown, Pennsylvania, a small historic town located on the edge of the Poconos, wanted to do three things this year: drive the bus, paint her bathroom and learn to crochet. Instead, Diehl, along with dozens of her neighbors, is spending her time trying to stop the largest food and beverage corporation in the world from taking her community's water, putting it in bottles and selling it for a massive profit.
Nestle Waters, the North American subsidiary of the Swiss-owned Nestle Corporation, had been active in Kunkletown for years, conducting well testing on a privately owned property adjacent to Diehl's home. Last summer, residents noticed Nestle had rented an office in the local community center. Word spread and with some investigation, Diehl and her neighbors found out that the transnational corporation had been active in the community as early as 2012, testing water quality and quantity with the ultimate goal of constructing and operating a bulk water extraction facility.
In the permit application that Nestle Waters filed with the township, it states the company is proposing to drill two large wells, pump 200,000 gallons of water per day from the aquifer, put it in trucks and transfer it to an existing bottling facility near Allentown, about 20 miles away. It expects 60 truck trips through the town per day. And Nestle isn't going away anytime soon: It plans to pump for 10 years with an option to continue pumping for an additional 15 years, leading to the removal of 73 million gallons of water from the aquifer over the life of the wells.
Concerned residents dove into their local township files and found out that in May 2014, an ordinance was surreptitiously changed in the Eldred Township zoning rules to allow bulk water extraction to occur in a commercial zone. That small, but important rule change opened the gate for Nestle to submit a permit application for bulk water extraction, which, before May 2014, was explicitly illegal in places zoned for commercial use.
Don Moore, an engineer who maintains a blog where he documents, in great detail, the fight to keep Nestle out of Kunkletown, couldn't believe what he was reading.
“One of the things that opened my eyes was the amount of profit for Nestle. To take all this water and hardly any cost. It's unreal," he said.
Diehl organized a community meeting, which took place in her backyard, with about 25 people.
“We knew we had to stop it, but at the time, we didn't know how," Diehl told Truthout.
Global Water Scarcity on the Rise
Kunkletown residents' effort to keep Nestle out of their community is not an isolated or parochial fight. Nestle, which has the largest share of the bottled water market in the U.S., is looking to secure and privatize water resources in the U.S. and around the world.
According to data from the United Nations (UN), around 1.2 billion people or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical water scarcity and 500 million people are approaching this situation. Another 1.6 billion people or almost one-quarter of the world's population, face economic water shortages.
Exacerbating this scarcity are the real and devastating impacts of climate change. The number and severity of droughts caused by climate change are intensifying across the globe and the U.S. As of April 7, 37 percent of the U.S. was experiencing at least moderate drought. These droughts are causing people to draw more and more from groundwater, which the U.S. Geological Survey has found to be declining nationwide.
To make matters worse, governments are not investing enough in public water infrastructure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the nation's drinking water utilities need $384.2 billion in infrastructure investments over the next 20 years for thousands of miles of pipe as well as thousands of treatment plants and storage tanks to ensure the public health. Consequences of this inadequate investment have been seen in recent high-profile public health crises in Flint, Michigan and the New Jersey public schools. Internationally, the UN finds that investment in public water systems and infrastructure is at an all-time low.
John Stewart, deputy campaigns director for Corporate Accountability International, sees the intersection of water scarcity, climate change and decreased investment in public water infrastructure as a perfect storm for corporations to move in, privatize the water and profit from a shared resource.
“Companies like Nestle don't see this situation as a public health crisis. They see it as a business opportunity," Stewart told Truthout.
Bottled Water is Big and Getting Bigger
Bottled water is big business. According to the International Bottled Water Association, the leading industry lobbying group, in 2013, Americans drank more than 10 billion gallons of bottled water, generating $12.3 billion in revenue for beverage companies. This amount was more than double the revenue recorded in 2000. Americans spent $18.82 billion in 2014 purchasing what comes, basically free, out of the tap.
Internationally, bottled water consumption is estimated to have neared 70.4 billion gallons in 2013, according to data from the latest edition of Beverage Marketing's report The Global Bottled Water Market. Consumption increased six percent in one year and is projected to grow. In fact, the International Bottled Water Association predicts the largest growth in bottled water to be in poor countries, where access to safe and clean water is not necessarily a given and public water infrastructure is severely underfunded.
Environmental impacts of bottled water are well documented. Millions of barrels of oil are used each year to produce the plastic containers and Americans alone throw away more than 60 million plastic bottles, which end up in landfills, each day. In addition, for every liter of bottled water produced, it takes three liters of water to produce it.
Among the companies that sell bottled water, Nestle is the biggest, owning 52 different brands of bottled water internationally and controlling 40 water extraction sources in North America alone. The company, which owns brands such as Arrowhead, Deer Park, Poland Springs and Ice Mountain, pumps billions of gallons of water out of the ground each year and pays very little for actual water besides its leases to private landowners. Then it charges up to 2,000 times more for that water than it would cost just to turn on the tap. The company couples its low overhead with highly sophisticated marketing and public relations campaigns to convince people that bottled water is safer and better tasting than tap water. Meanwhile, the company uses names and images that suggest the water is from a pure, untouched mountain spring, when in many cases it comes directly from a municipal water source and its sales and profits keep going up.
Stewart, who monitors Nestle's activities nationwide, finds that its playbook is the same in every community they target for industrial water extraction.
“They identify small, rural communities, many times economically depressed, that they think they can roll over and who they think might be susceptible to promises of jobs and tax revenue," he said.
Communities are Fighting Back and Winning
However, in many parts of the country, targeted communities are resisting domination by Nestle. In McCloud, California, town leaders signed a 50-year agreement in which Nestle would pay one sixty-fourth of a cent for a gallon of water and then turn around and sell it for more than $1 per gallon. Residents fought a six-year battle to have that agreement thrown out and eventually won in 2009.
Residents of Wacissa, Florida, have also successfully fended off the company with a sustained grassroots organizing effort, along with passing a local ordinance that would require any bottling operation to be approved by four out of the five county commissioners.
In California, which is experiencing severe drought, an investigation by The Desert Sun found that Nestle has been drawing water from the San Bernardino National Forest—36 million gallons last year alone—using a permit that expired in 1988. The Desert Sun also found that the company was only charged an annual permit fee of $524.
The Story of Stuff and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Forest Service in October 2015, making the argument that the agency has violated the law by allowing Nestle to take water without a valid permit and that their water removal threatens sensitive habitat. In response to the lawsuit, San Bernardino National Forest is proposing to issue Nestle a five-year permit after conducting an environmental analysis of the operations and its effects on the forest. Nestle is allowed to keep operating during the study, which could take up to two years to complete. The groups are moving forward with the litigation.
Meanwhile, 1,000 miles north of San Bernardino National Forest, the residents of Cascade Locks, Oregon, are trying to stop Nestle from opening its first bottling plant in the Northwest. They have organized a ballot measure to put in front of voters this May, which, if it passes, will prohibit bottled water operations in Hood River County.
Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns from The Story of Stuff—a nonprofit organization that coalesced around a 20-minute movie about the way we produce and throw away all of the material objects in our lives—is working to help Cascade Locks activists and communities all over connect the dots and build solidarity.
“No community needs to start at square one," Wilson said. “We know how to fight back and we know how Nestle works."
The communities who are in Nestle's sights are not only working to protect their local watersheds, but also are on the front lines of the ideological battle of what water is. Is it a commodity to be sold on the global marketplace or a public good that all humans have a right to?
“Privatizing and bottling water isn't a solution for securing access to clean water," Wilson said. “Clean water is a human right."
Wilson finds that Nestle understands what governments seem not to—that clean and accessible water is the most important resource in the world. They are trying to secure the rights to it, one small, rural community at a time.
The Water Wars in Kunkletown
Back in Kunkletown, residents have organized and fought back hard against Nestle's attempts to move in. And, from all accounts, they are winning.
Once they realized what was happening, the residents formed an informal community group to fight Nestle and five of those residents retained a lawyer. On Dec. 17, 2015, Diehl and four others filed a lawsuit against the Eldred Township Board of Supervisors alleging the area's zoning rules were surreptitiously and unlawfully changed. In January 2016, 120 residents and one business submitted a petition to intervene on behalf of the five plaintiffs, solidifying community support of their actions.
On Feb. 18, the Eldred Township Planning Commission, which serves in an advisory role to the zoning board, held a public meeting, with Nestle representatives and attorneys in attendance to present on the project and answer questions. During the four-hour, often contentious meeting, people stood up and directly challenged Nestle and their actions leading up to that moment.
“I go door-to-door in this community, 98 percent of the people are against it. Most of the people in this community are dead set against it," Desiree Jaeckle said. “Why didn't you find that out before you decided to extract your water?"
In March 2016, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Eldred Township zoning board outright deny Nestle's application. In a 24-page letter to the zoning board, the commission stated:
The eleventh hour amendment to the 2014 Eldred Township Zoning Ordinance that changed water extraction from an industry use to a manufacturing, light use was not the result of proper planning, but instead the efforts of a few, limited interested parties.
Among the litany of reasons for which the commission recommended denial, it cited the fact that Nestle's test wells diminished the flow of a nearby stream by 12 percent and resulted in a drop of two wells on adjacent properties. It also emphasized the impact of the public opposition to the project. The commission's document stated:
It should be initially noted that public comment at the planning commission's public meetings on Nestle's application was unanimously, and vociferously, in opposition to the Project, and its expected negative impact on current and future uses in the Township and the desirability of residing and doing business in the Township. The planning commission places great weight [on] the public comment that was received, and believes it is representative of general public sentiment in the Township on the Project.
The zoning board has yet to make a decision on whether to grant Nestle a permit and is going through the process of interviewing experts but locals are hopeful that it will make the right decision and if it doesn't, they are certain their legal challenge will succeed.
“We have wonderful water here and we will protect it. Nestle is trying to break us," Diehl told Truthout. “But I'm absolutely optimistic that we'll win."
Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth generation Montanan, rancher and anti-coal organizer who was featured in the recent climate change documentary This Changes Everything. In 2014, she was awarded a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. Follow Alexis on Twitter: @abonogofsky.
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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