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Orange County, Groveland Join Lake County’s Fight Against Water-Bottling Plant: Orange, Groveland Back Lake’s Effort to Block Bottling Plant

August 6, 2008

By Stephen Hudak, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

Aug. 6–TAVARES

Lake County won’t be alone in its fight to stop a California-based company that wants to tap the Floridan Aquifer for a bottled-water plant.

Orange County commissioners enlisted as allies Tuesday, approving a resolution that backs up Lake’s opposition to a permit for Niagara Bottling to withdraw 177 million gallons of water a year.

The symbolic resolution came the morning after the Groveland City Council pledged not just words but cash — offering to pay as much as half of Lake’s legal bill in its anticipated clash with the St. Johns River Water Management District and Niagara.

“This is not just our issue,” Lake County Commissioner Elaine Renick said after voting to file a legal challenge that is estimated to cost $500,000. “I just wish this case could be tried in the court of public opinion.”

More help may be coming.

Lake County Manager Cindy Hall said Volusia County commissioners are expected to vote Thursday on a resolution similar to Orange County’s, which assailed Niagara’s proposed permit as “wholly inconsistent with the sacrifices being required of Orange County residents and residents of other communities . . . “

Niagara spokeswoman Honey Rand said company officials were disappointed but not deterred by the governmental rally against the bottler, which was recruited to Central Florida by economic-development officials.

“We’ve demonstrated that we meet the permitting criteria,” Rand wrote in an e-mail. “We will not interfere with any existing legal user, we will not harm the environment and we provide a critical public interest with jobs that presently pay, on average, $51,000 annually.”

A report prepared by St. Johns’ technical staff recommends that the district’s appointed governing board give Niagara a five-year permit to pump water from the ground for bottling and resale.

The company has invested an estimated $15 million in a 291,000-square-foot bottling facility in Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park near Groveland.

Lake County, which has argued that Niagara’s permit is counter to the public interest, wants to challenge the facts and conclusions in the water-management district’s staff report. The report was likely to serve as the foundation of the governing board’s decision on the application.

Because of the impending legal challenge, St. Johns pulled the Niagara application from its agenda for the Aug. 12 meeting, district spokesman Hank Largin said.

Despite the support of neighboring counties, the fight won’t be easy for Lake County and its allies.

In a split decision Friday, the 5th District Court of Appeal backed the St. Johns district, which had approved a similar application for a water-bottling facility near Citra, despite the objections of Marion County commissioners.

Lake County Attorney Sandy Minkoff said Lake County’s arguments would be stronger.

If Lake’s legal challenge fails, the county might appeal to the Legislature.

Lake County Commission Chairman Welton Cadwell said the water-management district should be forced to listen to public outcries about water conservation, especially when governments are imposing sanctions on residents to rein in consumption.

David Damron of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Stephen Hudak can be reached at shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5930.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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