The recent multi-defendant indictment against companies in the water and waste industries is one more sign that the environmental cop remains on the beat. Keep an eye on staffing levels in EPA’s criminal program to see if this type of critical enforcement work can continue at the level needed to keep the playing field level and the public protected.
DOJ Press Release, July 2018
LOS ANGELES – A federal grand jury returned a 16-count indictment yesterday charging three companies, including the company that produces bottled water under the name “Crystal Geyser,” with violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) and the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (“HMTA”). The charges center on the alleged failure of the defendants to disclose information regarding arsenic in wastewater transported from Crystal Geyser’s Olancha, California, facility in March and May 2015.
The indictment charges three companies:
The investigation and indictment in this case focused on alleged violations involving Crystal Geyser’s wastewater, not the safety or quality of Crystal Geyser’s bottled water.
According to the indictment, in producing its bottled water, Crystal Geyser would draw water from natural sources that contained naturally occurring arsenic. Crystal Geyser would use sand filters to reduce the concentration of arsenic so that the water met federal drinking water standards. To maintain the effectiveness of the sand filters, Crystal Geyser would regenerate them by back-flushing a hydroxide and water solution through the sand filters, causing the filters to release arsenic into the hydroxide and water solution. This process would generate thousands of gallons of arsenic-contaminated wastewater.
The indictment alleges that Crystal Geyser discharged the arsenic-contaminated wastewater into a nearby manmade pond which Crystal Geyser called “the Arsenic Pond.” In September 2014, testing by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (“DTSC”) showed that the wastewater stored in the Arsenic Pond constituted a hazardous waste. In October 2014, DTSC testing also showed that arsenic-contaminated wastewater generated by the regeneration process was a hazardous waste. After October 2014, Crystal Geyser stopped discharging regeneration wastewater into the Arsenic Pond.
The indictment further alleges that, in March 2015, Crystal Geyser regenerated and back-flushed the sand filters and, it hired United Pumping and United Storm Water to transport the resulting several thousand gallons of high pH, arsenic-contaminated wastewater to a hazardous waste facility in Los Angeles County. In transporting that hazardous wastewater, the defendants utilized manifests that did not disclose any information about the arsenic content of the wastewater, contrary to law.
According to the indictment, after that March regeneration, in April 2015, DTSC informed Crystal Geyser that the wastewater in the Arsenic Pond constituted a hazardous waste and instructed Crystal Geyser to remove that wastewater from the Arsenic Pond and to transport it, using a hazardous waste manifest, to an authorized facility permitted to accept that specific type of hazardous waste.
In May 2015, Crystal Geyser again hired United Pumping and United Storm Water, this time to drain and transport the Arsenic Pond. United Pumping and United Storm Water transported the contents of the Arsenic Pond to a facility in Fontana, California despite the fact that that facility was not permitted to treat hazardous waste. According to the indictment, Crystal Geyser, United Pumping, and United Storm Water transported the contents of the Arsenic Pond using non-hazardous waste manifests and did not identify the arsenic in the wastewater, even though they knew that the water constituted arsenic hazardous waste.
“Our nation’s environmental laws are specifically designed to ensure that hazardous wastes are properly handled from beginning to end – from the point of generation to the point of disposal,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “The alleged behavior of the three companies charged in this indictment undermines that important objective and jeopardizes the safety of our community.”
Each of the defendants faces a statutory maximum fine of $8 million if convicted on all of the 16 counts in the indictment.
“EPA and its law enforcement partners are committed to the protection of public health and safety,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Jay M. Green of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in California. “This case was opened due to the hazards posed by illegal management and transportation of hazardous wastes. Today’s charges demonstrate that those who refuse to comply with the law will be held to account and prosecuted.”
An indictment contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed to be innocent until and unless proven guilty in court.
The investigation in this matter is being conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigations Division and the United States Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, with assistance from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Dennis Mitchell and Erik M. Silber of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.