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Crystal Geyser pleads guilty to storing and transporting wastewater contaminated with arsenic

Water Being Poured From a Water Bottle into a Glass-2105211_1920CG Roxane, the parent company of bottle water producer Crystal Geyser, has pleaded guilty to federal charges of illegally storing and transporting hazardous waste created from filtering arsenic out of spring water at its facility in Olancha, California. In a plea agreement recently filed in U.S. District Court, CG Roxane agreed to pay a criminal fine of $5 million.

CG Roxane obtained water by drawing groundwater from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains that contained naturally occurring arsenic, according to court documents. The company used sand filters to reduce the concentration of arsenic so the water would meet 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.

For about 15 years, CG Roxane discharged the arsenic-contaminated wastewater into a manmade pond – called “the Arsenic Pond” – at its Olancha facility along Highway 395.

In March 2013, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board took a sample from the Arsenic Pond and, in 2014, informed CG Roxane that the sample had an arsenic concentration that was more than eight times the hazardous waste limit, creating a risk to the area’s groundwater and wildlife.

The water board referred the matter to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which took samples that showed the Arsenic Pond had an arsenic concentration almost five times the federal hazardous waste limit. Later sampling and testing by CG Roxane and a laboratory it hired confirmed a similar arsenic concentration in the Arsenic Pond.

DTSC officials met with CG Roxane representatives in April 2015, presented a list of preliminary violations, and instructed the company to arrange for the removal of the Arsenic Pond.

In May 2015, CG Roxane hired two Los Angeles-area companies to remove the hazardous waste and transport it, which was done without identifying the wastewater as a hazardous material, according to court documents. The arsenic-contaminated wastewater was transported to a Southern California facility that wasn’t authorized to receive or treat hazardous waste. As a result, more than 23,000 gallons of the wastewater from the Arsenic Pond allegedly was discharged into a sewer without appropriate treatment.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Feb. 24.

The two companies hired to transport and treat the wastewater – United Pumping Services Inc. and United Storm Water Inc., both located in the City of Industry – were charged along with CG Roxane in this case in 2018. Both of those companies are scheduled to go on trial on April 21. If convicted, each company would face a statutory maximum fine of $8 million.

The investigation in this case focused on alleged violations involving the handling, storage, and transportation of CG Roxane’s wastewater, not the safety or quality of CG Roxane’s bottled water, federal officials said.

The investigation in this case is being conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigations Division and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, with assistance from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California.

Copyright 2020, Rita R. Robison, Consumer and Personal Finance Journalist

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