Neighbors and activists in Mount Shasta have been pressing Crystal Geyser Water Co. for months to conduct a full environmental review before opening a bottling plant just outside the small Northern California town.
On Monday, the group sued the Calistoga-based company and Siskiyou County, turning up the heat on a topic that has resonated with many as the state dries up: Should bottlers be able to pump unlimited amounts of water for sale during a drought?
Overall, bottlers use a tiny fraction of the state's water. But environmental impacts vary depending on the watershed.
Residents whose homes and wells border the Mount Shasta plant worry that Crystal Geyser's facility could leave them dry, and contend that some wells ran low when Coca-Cola was pumping there.
The plant sits just outside city limits but would rely on the city sewage plant. It draws on water that filters through the fractured volcanic rock of towering Mt. Shasta, forming the headwaters of the Sacramento River.
City and county officials have said they have no legal authority to require an environmental impact report because the site was zoned for heavy industry when it was a lumber mill, and that water bottling is a prior and permitted use.
The lawsuit, filed in Napa County Superior Court, asserts that because the plant will produce flavored beverages and blow-molded plastic bottles, it requires the kinds of discretionary permits that would trigger environmental review under California law.
The suit contends the facility is in an area zoned as a "woodland productivity" overlay -- which allows only light industrial use -- and is inconsistent with the county's general plan, thus requiring a conditional use permit.
It also contends the company must obtain a groundwater extraction permit.
"If Crystal Geyser and the county government would work within the system properly, citizens and agencies would have a chance to work together," Bruce Hillman, a member of the nonprofit resident group known as We Advocate Thorough Environmental Review said in a statement. "This hasn't happened."
The suit seeks an injunction against the plant while the issues are vetted.
Judy Yee, Crystal Geyser's executive vice president of marketing and business strategy, said the company was "disappointed" to learn of the lawsuit, but does not comment on pending litigation.
Company representatives have previously said they are employing top green building standards, "share everyone's concerns for the future and have a vested interest in helping to preserve a safe and sustainable environment."
Siskiyou County Supervisor Ed Valenzuela said that he toured the plant about a month ago and that it is "gearing up for operations."
He said perhaps the legal process will give critics "the satisfaction they need that everything was done correctly. It's my job to make sure [the plant] follows what's required and they have. We have a good planning department. Government here is not in the business of giving anyone a free ride."
In an email Tuesday, Brian L. Morris, the Siskiyou County counsel, said the county believes the lawsuit is without merit.
"The plaintiffs are challenging a legally approved land use for a pre-existing water bottling plant and we expect the courts will respond accordingly," Morris said.