Following a damning investigation by the Desert Sun last month which revealed that Nestlé had been using a long-expired permit to pipe and transport water from a national forest in drought-ridden California, activists are slamming the U.S. Forest Service's promises to make an investigation into the company a priority.
An investigation is an insufficient consequence—and the possibility of permit renewal is downright unacceptable, activists said.
The outrage follows comments made Friday by San Bernardino National Forest supervisor Jody Noiron, who told the Sun, "Now that it has been brought to my attention that the Nestlé permit has been expired for so long, on top of the drought… it has gone to the top of the pile in terms of a program of work for our folks to work on."
"It's pretty amazing that the Forest Service doesn't keep better track of its environmental permits," Earthjustice attorney Trent Orr told Common Dreams, adding that the agency should be seriously considering not renewing Nestlé's permits. "We are in a drought," Orr said. "Why the Forest Service would allow that to continue to happen seems pretty strange."
In its reporting, the Sun found that although Nestlé had long drawn water from wells that tap into springs in California's Strawberry Canyon, the company's permit to transport water across the San Bernardino forest expired in 1988.
Moreover, the Forest Service had not assessed the impacts of the bottled water industry on streams in environmentally fragile areas, nor has it closely tracked the volume of water being extracted, the Sun found.
"The lack of oversight is symptomatic of a Forest Service limited by tight budgets and focused on other issues, and of a regulatory system in California that allows the bottled water industry to operate with little independent tracking of the potential toll on the environment," the Sun wrote in its investigation.
Renewing Nestlé's permit could take more than two years, Noiron said.
Following the release of the Sun's investigation, protesters in California shut down the entrance to Nestle's bottling facility in Sacramento, while a petition by the Courage Campaign demanding that the corporation stop profiting from state water collected more than 135,000 signatures.
"While California is facing record drought conditions, it is unconscionable that Nestlé would continue to bottle the state’s precious water, export it, and sell it for profit," the petition reads.
Steve Loe, a former Forest Service biologist, has called for an immediate halt to Nestlé's bottling operations and greater protections for streams in Strawberry Canyon and Deer Canyon.
"They're taking way too much water. That water's hugely important," Loe told the Sun.
"When you take water from the springs that are the source of those waters, you dry up these canyons," Loe continued. "And they're the most important habitats that we have."
Nestlé is taking water "that belongs to the American people," Orr continued. With California in the midst of a historic drought, "It just doesn't make sense to allow a big company to profit from that."
Drew Feldmann, conservation chair for San Bernardino chapter of the Audubon Society, told the Sun that the situation was "deeply disturbing" and "raised serious issues of fairness, environmental justice, and the Forest Service's priorities regarding stewardship."
A separate investigation by the Sun, published last year, revealed that Nestlé has not submitted annual reports on the amount of water it bottled since 2009. The San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency in its own report lists a "rounded estimate" of 244 million gallons extracted by Nestlé per year.
Additionally, there is no state agency tracking how much water is used by the 108 private bottling plants in California, of which Nestlé operates five.
Given the historic nature of the drought, Noiron added that the Forest Service might impose "interim conditions" on Nestlé while the agency conducts its environmental review, but did not specify what those measures might be.