The Friends of Seawright Springs are fighting for their water. This coalition, composed of community members in Virginia’s rural Augusta County, knows it’s not right that Flow Beverages, a bottled water company, would set up camp and begin siphoning off the water supply without government consulting the public or even sharing information in a timely manner.
The bottled water industry makes money by tapping springs and rivers that communities survive on. They take massive amounts of water, package it in wasteful containers (usually made of plastic, although Flow attempts to make itself out as sustainable with non-plastic packaging), and sell it to the public at a huge mark-up. Though bottled water can be a vital resource for areas with contaminated water or broken infrastructure, the bottled water industry oftentimes works maliciously, even taking advantage of emergency situations to turn profits.
Augusta County is the first location in the United States where Flow Alkaline Spring Water has set up shop. On the brand’s website, Flow markets itself as “super natural” and “nice to the planet.” The company offers water in flavors like ‘grapefruit & elderflower’ or ‘blackberry & hibiscus,’ and you can get a variety pack shipped to your door for $29.99. What Flow doesn’t tell you is that they take advantage of corporate-friendly policies to privatize water resources without the consent or knowledge of the communities from which they extract their product. \
Currently, Flow is taking water from Seawright Springs and then using tankers and semitrailers to haul the water to Verona’s Mill Place Commerce Park, where workers package it for sale. The county re-zoned Seawright Springs from an agricultural area to a manufacturing one without public hearings or input.
Last December, the Augusta County Office of Community Development gave Flow the go-ahead the company needed to begin drawing water from Seawright Springs -- without requiring a new special-use permit. The office claimed a permit given to the previous owner of the land, in 1996, carries through to the present day and applies now to Flow.
For reasons of “confidentiality,” state and local government kept all information about the project secret. Then, on April 30, Governor Northam’s office officially announced that Flow was putting in a $15.5 million investment, while the state of Virginia would put up $250,000 in grant money to help the project move forward. Residents of Mount Sidney in Augusta County had no information about the project happening right by their homes until this announcement.
In late May, the Friends of Seawright Springs coalition brought a request to the Board of Zoning Appeals asking that they look into whether Flow has proper permitting to operate as they have been since December. Flow and local government are ignoring this question, and are instead challenging the validity of this appeal. The attorneys representing Flow and Augusta County claim the appeal needed to be submitted within 30 days of the Community Development Office’s decision back in December -- even though Northam’s office only announced the deal publicly in late April.
Without notification of the agreement, how were community members supposed to submit a more timely appeal? Keeping proceedings under the radar to avoid pushback from the very community whose water is in question is shady and unjust.
On July 3, the Augusta County Board of Zoning Appeals heard the case, then tabled the contentious discussion on whether Friends of Seawright Springs could rightfully appeal Flow’s permitting. On August 1, the board will make a final decision.
As of now, Flow’s operation has not been subject to an environmental impact statement from Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), nor has there been an assessment of the massive influx of truck traffic Flow brings to the area’s country roads (which also act as school routes). Mount Sidney is an agricultural area where community members rely on private wells for drinking water and livestock, and there is no public water system. It’s no mystery why people are worried. Attorneys working for Flow and Augusta County claim that residents need proof that Flow’s operation is doing them harm, but loss of significant amounts of water, the dangers of industrial traffic on country roads, and a heightened risk of water contamination seem proof enough.
When the government permits pay-to-play schemes like this one, outside corporations benefit while the checks and balances intended to protect communities remain absent. When county boards allow companies to privatize public resources in secret, we know exactly who it harms.
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