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UA wants bottled water off campus

Bottled-water exec readies for another bout.

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Breck Speed is displeased that the Sustainability Council at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville is trying to make his business unsustainable.

Speed is the CEO of Mountain Valley Spring, the well-known bottled-water company based in Hot Springs. The UA's new Sustainability Council recently announced that its first project will be “an education program aimed at reducing, and ultimately eliminating, the use of bottled water on campus.”

“There are lots of useful things they could do to promote sustainability,” Speed said. “Instead, they're going after an Arkansas industry. There's no milk bottled here, it's all shipped out of state. There's no soda pop bottled here. We [water bottlers] are the only Arkansas-based beverage industry. And we employ a lot of people.” Four companies bottle water in Arkansas, including Mountain Valley. The Coca-Cola bottling plant at Little Rock actually bottles only Dasani water (which begins as Little Rock tap water).

After Speed complained about the Sustainability Council's announcement, the Council issued a more tactfully worded “correction” that said in part “The project to limit bottled water use on campus is completely voluntary, and will not result in removing bottled water from the shelves of campus vendors.” It didn't satisfy Speed.

(While some people are all wrapped up in “sustainability” these days, others don't even understand what sustainability is. It has to do with conservation and protecting the environment. Wikapedia says, “As applied to the human community, sustainability has been expressed as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”)

The Sustainability Council includes faculty, administrators and students in its membership. It was created last spring by then-Chancellor John White.  The Council said in a news release that the goal of its first project “is to teach the campus community that bottled water is unnecessary, expensive and harmful to the environment. The project intends to show that drinking municipal tap water or filtered tap water, and using refillable containers, is an inexpensive and sustainable alternative. The organizers intend to recruit college deans, campus organizations and student groups to help promote the voluntary project. A kick-off event is being planned for November.”

Speed, who holds a law degree from UA, is further annoyed that the Council won't meet with him to hear his side of the bottled-water story. Nick Brown, UA executive assistant for sustainability, said that the Council's meetings, comparatively brief and infrequent and highly structured, were not an appropriate place for the exchange of views that Speed proposed. He said the Council had invited Speech to participate in point-counterpoint discussions in the student newspaper and other fora. Speed found the offer unsatisfactory.

Speed says the Council adopted unquestioningly the data it found on an anti-bottled-water website. “They didn't do a whole lot of work,” he said. “It's a very unacademic exercise.”

The Council says that tap water is as safe or safer than bottled water. In some parts of the country, that simply is not true, Speed said. He mentioned a recent controversy over perchlorate, a toxic chemical, being found in some public water supplies. Mountain Valley and other bottled waters banned perchlorate years ago, he said.

Speed says he's not through with the Sustainability Council. “They're raising money to run ads,” he said. “If they're going to enter a marketing campaign against bottled water, we'll have to respond. I'll run ads. I'll talk to the UA's head honchos. I'll do whatever it takes.”

Speed has already crossed swords with Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody, another bottled-water foe. Speed said in an Arkansas Times article Aug. 14 that bottled water is under attack nationally from three groups — public-water officials, environmentalists, and companies that sell home water-filtration systems.

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