Park Service Scrambles to Save Face in Plastic Bottle Fiasco

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Park Service Scrambles to Save Face in Plastic Bottle Fiasco

Focused Public Pressure Trumped Corporate Influence on National Park Policies

Washington, DC — To quell an unexpectedly large public outcry, the National Park Service (NPS) hastily reversed direction last week in allowing parks to ban sales of disposable plastic water bottles.  The agency had been circulating a draft policy requiring parks provide “continued disposable water bottle availability” until recent media coverage of the role Coca Cola and other bottlers played in scuttling a water bottle ban at Grand Canyon National Park just days before it went into effect, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In a new policy issued on December 14, 2011, NPS Director Jarvis announced that “in light of recent interest” he was releasing a plan already in the works authorizing park superintendents to “halt the sale” of plastic water bottles if they met certain conditions.  However, there is no trace of this new policy in documents released to PEER last month in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all records relating to the Director’s review of the issue.  To the contrary, 2011 e-mails and memos show:

  • In late June, Jarvis’ chief deputy telling subordinates “the Director’s view is NOT ban sale of bottled water, but to go the choice route” (emphasis in original);
  • A 2011 policy being prepared for Jarvis’ approval required all parks to provide “continued disposable water bottle availability” and limited park consideration of any possible water bottle reduction to the expiration of current concessionaire contracts.

After PEER released documents in mid-November showing how Jarvis indefinitely suspended the Grand Canyon bottle ban at the last minute, there has been extensive media coverage of the influence exerted by Coca Cola, a major plastic bottler, and its donations to the National Park Foundation.  Jarvis’ protestations that corporate contributions played no role in his actions were belied by his e-mails released to PEER.

The apparent dissembling by Jarvis and his spokespeople sparked public outrage.  Angry citizens besieged NPS.  One petition urging parks be allowed to ban plastic bottles quickly drew nearly 100,000 signatures.

“While we are happy that Director Jarvis has reversed course, we are concerned at his continuing lack of candor,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.  “The record clearly shows intense public scrutiny forced this abrupt u-turn – it did not result from a dispassionate or open decision-making process.”

Under the new policy, parks pursuing a ban must jump through a set of bureaucratic hoops, including –

  • Mandatory “consultation with NPS Public Health Office” even though NPS has yet to produce a scrap of evidence that plastic bottle bans have any demonstrated public health ramifications;
  • Annual surveys of “visitor satisfaction, buying behavior” and concessionaire “sales revenue”; and
  • Reports on “availability of BPA-free reusable containers.”  Bisphenol A (BPA) is a compound used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins which is linked to health concerns.

Grand Canyon National Park has indicated it intends to meet these requirements and move forward with its long-planned ban in 2012.  Another dozen parks, including Yellowstone and Death Valley, had been considering bottle bans when Jarvis issued his system-wide moratorium earlier this year.

Despite facing a PEER lawsuit for FOIA non-compliance, the National Park Foundation has yet to surrender documents detailing its role as a lobbyist for Coca Cola interests, whether the company threatened to withhold pledged donations, and what, if any, strings were attached to its contributions.  Meanwhile, Jarvis has called for creating a billion dollar endowment for NPS, largely from corporate donations channeled through the congressionally-chartered National Park Foundation.

“We are seeking much greater transparency in this fund-raising arm of the National Park Service,” Ruch added.  “How many other corporate hooks are wrapped inside these charitable gifts?”

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