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Environmentalists Demand Quick Action|to Turn Off Nestle’s California Spigot

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Calling Nestle's ongoing siphoning of a stream in drought-stricken Southern California for its bottling operations "morally bankrupt" and "illegal," environmentalists have asked a judge for a quick decision to stop the multinational conglomerate's 68,000-gallon-a-day guzzling.

In October, The Story of Stuff Project, Courage Campaign Institute and Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Forest Service claiming it allows Nestle Waters North America to bottle millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino National Forest on a permit that expired in the late 1980s.

According to the groups, Nestle pays the government just $524 a year, or less than the average Californian's water bill, to divert water from the forest.

"Nestle's actions aren't just morally bankrupt, they are illegal," Eddie Kurtz, an executive with California-based Courage Campaign Institute, said. "In the spring, we asked Nestle to do the right thing, and they threw it back in our faces, telling Californians they'd take more of our water if they could. The U.S. Forest Service has been enabling them to destroy delicate ecosystems in the San Bernardino National Forest for 27 years, and it has to stop. Our government won't stand up to them, so we're taking matters into our own hands."

In a motion for summary judgment filed on Monday, the groups argue that it is undisputed that the federal government lets the multinational giant bottle the water from a four-mile pipeline in Strawberry Creek under a permit that expired 23 years ago.

The groups say the current drought conditions in the 824,000-acre forest have worsened because of Nestle's bottling and are seeking a court order that vacates and sets aside the permit that allows Nestle to siphon 68,000 gallons of water a day.

The Switzerland-based company operates in 197 countries and last year reported almost $90 billion in profits.

"We Californians have dramatically reduced our water use over the past year in the face of an historic drought, but Nestle has refused to step up and do its part," Michael O'Heaney, an executive with Story of Stuff Project, said in a written statement. "Until the impact of Nestle's operation is properly reviewed, the Forest Service must turn off the spigot."

The U.S. Forest Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Nestle - which is not a party to the lawsuit - offered its perspective.

"Nestle Waters North America is not a party to the lawsuit, and does not comment on specific filings in this litigation. Nestle Waters continues to work diligently with the U.S. Forest Service on the permit renewal process," the company said in a written statement emailed to Courthouse News by its spokeswoman Jane Lazgin.

In the filing, the groups say the Forest Service granted the permit to Arrowhead Puritas Water in 1976. The nontransferable permit was amended twice before it finally expired in 1988, the groups say, after which Arrowhead became a subsidiary of Perrier Group. Nestle later claimed that it was the holder of the permit, according to the filing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in 1998 that there was no evidence that the Forest Service had complied with the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws when it granted the original permit.

To argue that federal regulations allow "a permit to extend indefinitely by inaction means that both the permittee and the agency have the ability to indefinitely avoid the permit procedures required by National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act, Endangered Species Act and Federal Land Policy Management Act and other laws, as well as deprive the public of notice and an opportunity to be heard," the USDA concluded, according to a statement of undisputed facts attached to the groups' motion.

The statement says that the only information Arrowhead provided to the Forest Service in a 1987 renewal request was a "short letter."

"'Yet, Forest Service regulations require extensive information to accompany a special-use permit application,'" the USDA said in 1998, the filing states.

Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity urged the court to make a quick decision.

"The drought is harmful enough, but Nestle's decades-old, expired permit is taking the little water that's left in the stream. That's just wrong," Anderson said.

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