The Trump administration has ended a six-year-old ban on selling bottled water at some national parks that was aimed at easing plastic pollution and the huge amount of waste being recycled.
In a statement that closely tracked the arguments of a campaign by the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) in opposition to the ban, the National Park Service said the 2011 action under the Obama administration “removed the healthiest beverage choice at a variety of parks while still allowing sales of bottled sweetened drinks.”
The move follows a review of the policy “in close consultation with Department of Interior leadership,” according to the statement Wednesday. The department declined to elaborate.
The decision came three weeks after the Senate confirmation of David Bernhardt as deputy interior secretary. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which has represented one of the largest water bottlers in the United States, Nestlé Waters.
Some Democratic senators called Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest” during his confirmation hearing, because of his work on behalf of corporate interests opposed to Interior Department regulations to promote clean air and water.
Nestlé Waters disputed any claim that Bernhardt might have acted on its behalf. “Claims… that Nestlé Waters North America unduly influenced the National Parks Service to rescind its ban on bottled water are categorically false,” the company said in a statement. “No one in the General Counsel’s office at Nestlé… has ever met or spoken to Mr. Bernhardt, and frankly was not familiar with him until these irresponsible claims were made.”
The administration’s critics saw an interesting coincidence. “Under Trump, the Department of the Interior appears to be working hand in hand with the bottled-water industry to do its bidding,” said Lauren DeRusha Florez, associate campaign director for Corporate Accountability International, a nonprofit groups that takes on the tobacco, fast-food and fossil-fuel industries.
The industry association hailed the decision as recognizing “the importance of making safe, healthy, convenient bottled water available to the millions of people from around the world who want to stay well hydrated while visiting national parks,” said IBWA spokeswoman Jill Culora. “Consumption of water in all forms — tap, filtered and bottled — should always be encouraged.”
In its numerous arguments against the ban, the association commonly referenced the health of visitors but rarely mentioned another key consideration: profits. The Park Service’s 411 sites draw more than 300 million visitors annually.
A recent study showed that of the more than 9 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950, the vast majority is still around. Yet only 2 billion tons are actually still being used, according to the study.
The rest is stuck as garbage in landfills and as pollution littering the land and deep oceans, where it has been discovered in the mouths of whales and the bellies of dead seabirds that mistook it for food. A small amount is eliminated in incinerators, which can produce harmful emissions, the study said. Recycling plastic bottles only delays their eventual trip to a trash container.