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Tempest in a Bottle

Planned water bottling plant stirs fierce opposition in Interior town.

Francis Plourde 21 Jun

Francis Plourde is on staff at The Tyee.

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Bottling proposal caused a splash in Valemont.

Residents of a small hamlet near the Alberta border will gather later this month to protest what they say is an environmentally questionable plan to build a second water bottling plant in the region surrounding their town.

Jill Moore and Irvin Leroux approached the Valemount Village council in January, hoping to have a piece of property rezoned for their proposed Shining Mountain Springs bottling plant.

At the time, the two thought their timing was good. The town of about 1400 had recently lost its major employer, a lumber company, and their project could create between 20-60 jobs in the area. What's more, the couple says, their intentions are benevolent.

Moore and Leroux's land is located on a pristine source of water flowing from the nearby Monashee glaciers. The two want to extract groundwater to sell it to third world countries and use the profits to finance water-related humanitarian projects.

"We want to provide water to countries that don't have access to water," said Irvin Leroux in an interview with The Tyee. "We want to be profitable and operate on a minimum amount of profit. And we want to provide good, clean, environmentally-friendly jobs for the area."

But that hasn't convinced local residents, about 100 of whom showed up at a recent meeting to object to the plan. Concerned locals also sent 109 protest form letters to the regional district of Fraser Fort George in the weeks leading up to the meeting.

Most of those who object to the plant are concerned about potential environmental side effects, including the impact on the health of the local aquifer. Valemount already hosts one water bottling company, Monashee Springs. That plant has been around for 17 years and extracts about 38,000 litres of water per day from the ground. But while water quality tests are done on a regular basis, no official evaluation of the aquifer's health has been completed.

Long-time resident John Grogan objects to the planned plant and wants the regional district to use the precautionary principle. "We take precaution about things that we don't know enough about," he said. "This proposal sounds like they are mining water."

Sparse regulations

But regulations governing groundwater in B.C. are sparse, as Chris Wood wrote about last year in The Tyee. So there may be few grounds for Valemount residents to object to the project.

New provisions for groundwater protection were added to the Water Act in 2001. And a Ground Water Protection Regulation was put in place in 2004. The regulation, however, focuses on well construction standards and ground water quality protection. It also only applies to large projects according to a spokesman from the Ministry.

Small projects though, can still be pretty big. Under the current legislation, an individual or a business can extract nearly six and a half million litres of water per day -- or 75 litres per second -- and still be considered "small." By comparison, the limit for a small project in Ontario is just 50,000 litres per day.

The Shining Mountain Springs project has the potential to extract 2.7 million of litres of water per day, or the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, according to their website. As a small project then, groundwater regulations would not apply. Nor would the owners have to pay licensing fees.

Linda Nowlan is the co-author of Eau Canada, a book that assesses the mismanagement of Canadian water. She says stricter regulations on water extraction are needed. "It's a public resource, and private companies are taking groundwater and selling it," she said. "The province is not getting any funding from that, unlike in the forest and mining industries, where there are related fees."

Ontario, for instance, recently passed legislation to charge water bottlers, canning companies and other heavy commercial water users $3.71 per million litres extracted. An environmental assessment would also be required for new projects.

Industry booming

Shining Mountain Springs would be part of a growing trend in Canada. The bottled water industry has doubled here in the last 10 years, earning a $653 million profit in 2005 alone. Water sales today represent six per cent of the beverage industry.

The latest figures for B.C are nearly a decade old, dating back to 1998. But even back then the industry was gulping 163 million litres of H2O per year from the province. B.C. is the third largest producer of bottled water in the country, right after Quebec and Ontario, where regulations have already been put in place.

Michael Austin moved to Valemount about a year ago. He is appalled by the lack of regulations and information on groundwater. "I've been asking what was the impact [of the water bottling plant]. But nobody seems to have this information," he said. "We should obtain more independent information about our aquifer before another water bottling plant is established in town."

Shining Mountains Springs currently has to submit its own hydrogeological report the regional district before starting the project. But Austin wants an independent third party expert to assess and monitor the local aquifer.

"It looks like I could drill some wells, provide some hydrogeological reports and get a license," he said. He adds that the hydrogeological study alone is not enough and should be coupled with geomorphology, ecology and climatology studies to assess the whole impact of the plant in the area.

Regarding Austin's concerns, Leroux says they have to submit to several regulations in terms of quality of the water in addition to the hydrogeological report. He also says he can't meet with the residents until the reports are written. "When we present our project, they'll be able to ask their questions to our independent experts."

Leroux says he follows the Canadian Bottled Water Association's ethics guidelines -- which are stricter than most Canadian legislation -- and considers the storm of protest against his water bottling plant "out of proportion."

The water needs of their plant, he says, will be even less than the needs of the golf courses in the surrounding area. "Besides, I feel there's a number of aquifers that run out the valley through there," he said. "We are based on one of these aquifers. Our water comes from other sources."

But residents fear the impact climate change might have on the aquifer in the long run. Since 1850, some 1300 glaciers have lost 25 to 75 percent of their mass, most of it occurring in the last 50 years.

For Leroux, though, that's no reason to stop his project. "If they are concerned about their water disappearing in Valemount area, the rest of the country has a problem," he said. "It will never dry up, not in our lifetime."

'Excessive withdrawal'

World wide, criticism of the bottled water industry is growing. A recent report by the Washington-based environmental group Worldwatch Institute called the explosion of bottled water sales a "boom to the industry but a bust for the environment."

"Excessive withdrawal of natural mineral or spring water to produce bottled water has threatened local streams and groundwater, and the product consumes significant amounts of energy in production and shipping," wrote the report's authors. "Millions of tons of oil-derived plastics, mostly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), are used to make the water bottles, most of which are not recycled. Each year, about 2 million tons of PET bottles end up in landfills in the United States."

In Canada, too, concern is rising. "It's pulling resources down the drain. And we contribute a cradle of pollution to the environment," said Susan Howatt, national water campaigner at the Council of Canadians.

Moore and Leroux don't share the Council of Canadians' point of view. They say that individuals are responsible for their own water waste. They consider their industry cleaner than many others, and stress they'll use the profits to finance water-related projects in countries that don't have access to water.

The Council of Canadians, however, has a hard time believing their intentions. "I'm cynical enough to say that it's a marketing ploy," said Howatt.

Besides, she adds, Canada has less water than people think. The country is often credited with 20 per cent of the world's drinkable water resources. Yet, official records show that Canada's share is actually much lower, down at 7 per cent.

According to Howatt, it's why there's no political pressure to create a national regulation on water. "Our water is our own apathy. We have this crazy notion that we have all the water in the world. That's tragically false. We are all downstream of everything," she said.

Worried locals

Late last month, Valemount locals Kim and Tore Thorn joined a group of other residents to send a letter to local and national politicians as well as NGOs. In the letter was a call for a moratorium on groundwater exports and a request for official positions on water bottling plants and exports. The regional district says the letters will be considered during the next council meeting. And, in response to the opposition, the council of Valemount recently expressed second thoughts on the project.

But the town's mayor, Jeannette Townsend, said that she will wait for the studies to take a decision. "We'll wait until we get all the facts, and we'll take a decision then," she said.

A public hearing, to be held on June 27, might tackle the issue.

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