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Fight Over Mt. Shasta Water Bottling Plant Gets Political

Residents near Mt. Shasta concerned about a water bottling plant launched a ballot initiative to tighten bottling rules, but were defeated. Now, one claims the other side used an astroturf campaign and violated campaign finance rules.

Written by Jane Braxton Little Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
This photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, shows a drier than usual Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County, Calif. Tapping water found in lava tubes at the base of the mountain has been the focus of 10 bottling operations that have been proposed in Siskiyou County in the last decade.AP/Record Searchlight, Andreas Fuhrmann

A multiyear fight over a proposed water bottling plant in Northern California has taken a new turn.

California’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has launched an investigation into alleged violations of campaign finance rules by Crystal Geyser Water Company and the Committee for a Strong Siskiyou Economy, No on Measure H. Galena West, chief of the commission’s enforcement division, announced the probe on March 2.

Crystal Geyser has been bottling and selling Northern California water since 1977. In 2013 it bought an idled Coca-Cola plant in the city of Mt. Shasta, which it hopes to open. But local residents have pushed back, most recently by launching Measure H last year, a citizen-driven ballot initiative that would have required permits for Crystal Geyser and all other companies pumping water and selling it outside Siskiyou County.

Andy Fusso, founder of Siskiyou Forward Movement, which backed Measure H, filed a complaint on Feb. 15 to the FPPC alleging that Crystal Geyser and the committee failed to disclose the real value of the campaign signs placed throughout the rural county. They also failed to disclose amounts paid or owed to committee treasurer Kelly Lawler of Hilmar, California, whose business provides campaign services, Fusso said in his complaint.

The Committee for a Strong Siskiyou Economy did not exist until last year, when it launched a campaign opposing Measure H. Fusso called the committee an “astroturf (fake grassroots) entity” funded and controlled by Crystal Geyser, and designed to give a false impression of popular opposition to Measure H.

The “No on H” yard signs used during the ballot initiative in Siskiyou County are at the center of the latest controversy surrounding the proposed bottling plant by Crystal Geyser. (Andy Fusso)

The “No on H” yard signs used during the ballot initiative in Siskiyou County are at the center of the latest controversy surrounding the proposed bottling plant by Crystal Geyser. (Andy Fusso)

“Even in our small county election, corporate money corrupted the democratic process,” he said.

Crystal Geyser is currently reviewing the complaint and said, “The Committee for a Strong Siskiyou County, No on Measure H is a registered, legitimate committee. Crystal Geyser Water Company supported the Committee during its successful campaign against Measure H.”

The investigation by the state’s political watchdog is the latest clash over bottled water in the county that hosts Mt. Shasta and its fabled springs. Water percolating through a maze of underground lava tubes at the base of the iconic volcano has been a target for bottling companies for years.

Over the last decade, as many as 10 bottling operations have been proposed in Siskiyou County. All have been welcomed by officials desperate to restore the jobs lost to a disappearing timber industry. The most recent proposal is from Crystal Geyser to reopen the Mt. Shasta plant, closed since 2010.

Citizens countywide have objected to the county’s open-arms welcome, citing a dearth of information about the water table and a lack of scientific studies on bottling’s impacts on the aquifer. Opposition has ranged over the years from petitions to lawsuits.

Measure H grew out of the county’s resistance to analyzing both the aquifer and corporate proposals to bottle its bounty. The ballot initiative would have amended the county’s groundwater ordinance to require a permit for bottling companies to extract groundwater for use outside of Siskiyou County. Permit applications would trigger the appropriate environmental review.

Measure H lost badly. Nearly 56 percent of the voters rejected it.

Fusso blamed the loss on opposition organized – but publicly undisclosed – by Crystal Geyser. The large “No on Measure H” campaign signs that appeared on ranches and rural roadsides throughout Siskiyou County were “professionally produced” by Southern California contractors, he said.

The committee failed to disclose the true cost of the signs “professionally placed” around the county, listing the value at $100 in its December report to the FPPC, Fusso said in his complaint. He placed the actual value at more than $13,000.

In contrast, Measure H proponents spent around $1,000 on signs hand-painted by children, said Fusso.

Fusso also charged that the company falsely reported what it spent on mailers, a website and ads urging voters to reject Measure H. It concluded its December reporting by listing $23,403 in unpaid bills. In his complaint, Fusso alleged that the committee had a financial guarantee from Crystal Geyser, and that it delayed reporting details of its costs to “conceal evidence of Crystal Geyser’s near-total financing of this campaign.”

“For Crystal Geyser and its front group to massively outspend Measure H proponents, and then violate campaign finance laws – it’s shameful,” said Fusso, who formed Siskiyou Forward Movement as a California Political Action Committee to support or oppose candidates and ballot measures in Siskiyou County.

Crystal Geyser has not yet opened the Mt. Shasta bottling plant. In response to a lawsuit claiming violations of state environmental regulations, the Siskiyou County supervisors required the company to complete a study before they would permit operations to resume at the old Coca-Cola plant. A final environmental study is expected later this year.

West, the Fair Political Practices enforcement chief, said the commission has made no determination about the validity of Fusso’s complaints or the culpability of Crystal Geyser. If it determines that the corporation has violated campaign finance rules, the Calistoga-based company could face fines.

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