Ex-Grand Canyon head: Coke talks ended bottle ban

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. (AP) — A plan to ban the sale of plastic water bottles at the Grand Canyon was scrapped after talks with Coca-Cola, which is a donor to the national parks system and a bottled water distributor, a former park superintendent who worked on the plan said.

However, National Park Service spokesman Dave Barna said Thursday the plug was pulled on the ban after the agency’s director determined it wouldn’t solve the littering problem at the popular tourist spot.

The Coca-Cola Co. was not the leading factor in the decision to dump the plan two weeks ahead of its scheduled Jan. 1, 2011, start, Barna said. Coca-Cola also denied trying to influence the decision.

Steve Martin, who retired as superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park earlier this year, said he worked to get employees, concessionaires and others on board with the plan to ban the disposable water bottles that make up as much as 30 percent of the park’s solid waste.

Water-filling stations were installed around the park at a cost of more than $300,000 this year.

Martin said he had the approval of the regional office and had briefed officials at Park Service headquarters in Washington last year about the ban.

While Nestle first expressed concern about the ban, Martin said it wasn’t halted until Coca-Cola spoke with the National Park Foundation, which raises money for the sites.

Martin said it’s unsettling to think that the Park Service, which stands to be an environmental leader, might have sidestepped ethical duties to be free of corporate influence.

“Both the paper record is there for how widespread the understanding of what we were doing was, and the approvals,” he said. “That’s what makes it so extraordinary. Right as we’re moving to the finish line on a really excellent program, because of Coke’ s influence, it was scuttled.”

Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani, Glaceau and Aquarius Springs brands, has donated more than $14 million to restore and renovate national parks, said company spokeswoman Susan Stribling.

At no time did Coca-Cola try to influence the Park Service’s decision, she said. That was echoed by the National Park Foundation, which said Coca-Cola approached it late last year asking how to be part of the discussion.

Stribling and the foundation said Coca-Cola never threatened to pull financial support if the ban went into effect. Barna said the Park Service would not have responded favorably to Coca-Cola in that situation.

“We’re not going to sell out the national park...,” he said. “That’s absurd.”

Stribling said Coca-Cola focused on implementing a recycling program at the Grand Canyon to cut down on waste.

“Eliminating anything altogether is never really an answer; it’s not a solution,” she said. “You’re taking away the ability for people to make their own choices about what they eat or drink.”

Barna contends Martin didn’t get the required approvals. And although the Park Service was aware of the ban in September and had discussed how to best publicize it, agency director Jon Jarvis didn’t find out about it until mid-December when the foundation relayed a message from Coca-Cola, Barna said.

Zion and Hawaii Volcanoes national parks have instituted bans similar to the one proposed at the Grand Canyon, one of the most highly visited national parks in the country. A new concessionaire contract at Zion provided an opportunity to eliminate bottled water sales, Barna said. Doing the same at Grand Canyon would mean a hit of at least $300,000 to the concessionaire halfway through the contract and potentially leave the Park Service liable for the losses, he said.

“Taking plastic bottles out of the waste stream is unarguably our goal,” Barna said. “This is what we want to do, but how we get there is critical.”

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which sought to discover the reason the ban was halted through public records requests, sued the Park Service and the foundation on Thursday, alleging the groups unlawfully withheld documents or failed to respond. Executive director Jeff Ruch said Jarvis’ decision to reverse the ban is “highly questionable.”

“Why in the world would the Park Service director swoop down at the last minute to veto a common-sense conservation measure that a park had spent significant taxpayer dollars to implement?” he said.

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