Environmentalists Lose Battle for Bottled Water Records

(CN) – An environmental group demanding that Nestle stop pumping millions of gallons of water from a California creek failed to persuade a federal judge that the government should disclose records related to the Swiss company’s bottled water operations. 

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden in Washington, D.C., ruled Monday that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture were justified in redacting and withholding certain records after the government produced thousands of pages plus emails, photos, and videos. 

Environmental group Story of Stuff Project filed a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request seeking more information about the company’s permit to take water from Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest, 70 miles east of Los Angeles.

In a separate lawsuit filed in 2015, Story of Stuff Project joined the Center for Biological Diversity and the Courage Campaign Institute in suing the Forest Service. They claim the agency allowed Nestle to drain more than 160 million gallons each year from the creek on an expired permit. After a drawn-out legal fight, the government renewed the permit in the summer of 2018. 

In the FOIA case, Judge McFadden ruled that the government had correctly cited exemptions that prevented it from releasing information related to Nestle’s trade secrets and other sensitive corporate data.

However, McFadden also found the government should disclose the names of Nestle scientists and consultants who had communicated with the Forest Service. The judge ruled that the public’s interest outweighed the government’s concerns over privacy.

“Nestle employees and consultants prepared reports to aid the Forest Service in making its permit renewal decision about publicly owned forest lands,” McFadden wrote. “The public has a plausible interest in evaluating these individuals’ qualifications.”

Story of Stuff Project alleged that Nestle paid the federal government just $524 a year to divert water from the forest for its Arrowhead brand of spring water. After the parties settled the lawsuit, the Forest Service last year granted Nestle a new permit. 

Nestle’s operations at the creek came into sharp focus in an era in which California is under threat from prolonged droughts and climate change. 

Story of Stuff Project, Nestle and the Justice Department did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment. 

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