The company that produces Crystal Geyser bottled water pleaded guilty to federal charges of illegally storing and transporting arsenic-laden wastewater earlier this month. The charges were brought in 2018 against Crystal Geyser’s parent company, CG Roxane, and against two contracted companies for violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act that allegedly occurred in March and May of 2015. U.S. District Court Judge S. James Otero scheduled a sentencing hearing for February 24, at which time Crystal Geyser is expected to be ordered to pay $5 million in fines.
According to court records, CG Roxane was accused of creating a man-made “arsenic pond” in eastern California, in a remote location between Death Valley and the Sequoia National Forest, and then failing to disclose when the water was pumped out of the pond and delivered to water treatment plants that it contained arsenic. The arsenic-laden wastewater was reportedly produced by filtering naturally occurring arsenic out of Sierra Nevada spring water at CG Roxane’s facility in Owens Valley, California, in order to make sure the water met federal drinking water standards.
“To maintain the effectiveness of the sand filters, CG Roxane back-flushed the filters with a sodium hydroxide solution, which generated thousands of gallons of arsenic-contaminated wastewater,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated. According to reports, CG Roxane discharged the arsenic-tainted wastewater into the man-made pond for approximately 15 years.
Arsenic is a heavy metal that occurs naturally as an environmental pollutant in the air, water and soil. Arsenic is highly toxic in its inorganic form and exposure to arsenic from drinking water can adversely affect the neurologic, respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and other body systems. Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking water and food can also cause cancer, skin lesions and other serious side effects, possibly including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organization states that “Contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to public health from arsenic.” Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine and Public Health states that “Among the various routes of arsenic exposure, drinking water is the largest source of arsenic poisoning worldwide.”
In 2013, local water quality officials tested the water in CG Roxane’s man-made pond and found arsenic concentrations above the hazardous waste limit, as did subsequent sampling by state authorities and the company, prosecutors said. As a result, CG Roxane was ordered the remove the pond, but when the two contracted companies did so, they failed to identify the wastewater as hazardous material, which resulted in 23,000 gallons of arsenic-tainted wastewater being discharged into California’s water system without proper treatment.
The two contracted companies that removed the pond, a waste-hauling corporation called United Pumping Services and a company that provides environmental and lake draining services called United Storm Water, also face charges for allegedly failing to disclose the presence of the poisonous heavy metal in wastewater transported from the bottling plant in Olancha, an area about 200 miles north of Los Angeles in Inyo County. An April trial is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles federal court for the two contracted companies.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has assured consumers that the focus of the investigation was the storage, handling and transportation of CG Roxane’s wastewater, not the safety or quality of Crystal Geyser bottled water.