The National Park Service chief has said that his decision to block a ban on selling bottled water at Grand Canyon National Park was based on safety and contracts, but emails released Friday indicate an early concern was how Coca-Cola, a major water vendor as well as parks funder, would react.
"While I applaud the intent, there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts," NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis said in the email exchange posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The watchdog group obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Jarvis then directed two deputies to further "talk about this before GRCA pulls the plug" -- GRCA being shorthand for Grand Canyon. He further noted that the president of the National Park Foundation, through which Coca-Cola and other private entities help with funding, "would like to host a meeting of the beverage reps, which makes some sense to me."
Coca-Cola did contact the foundation with concerns, National Park Service spokesman David Barna told msnbc.com, but "that just started the conversation."
"The initial plan to end sales of bottled water in Grand Canyon National Park raised more questions than it answered," he added.
On the other hand, Barna said, Coca-Cola's recycling campaign at the National Mall, part of the park service, "was more holistic, with the goal to recycle all bottles, rather than focus on one type" by banning it.
PEER earlier this year accused Jarvis of caving in to Coca-Cola, at which time he issued a statement that his decision in December 2010 to scuttle the ban "was not influenced by Coke, but rather the service-wide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park."
The safety concern refers to the possibility that visitors without access to water could succumb to the heat.
In a statement, PEER said that argument "appears especially farfetched given that Grand Canyon had spent more than $300,000 installing 'watering stations' and made reusable containers available.
"Zion National Park, a desert park, banned plastic bottles more than two years ago with no reported ill effects," it added.
A second string of emails released Friday shows that the chief of commercial services for the park service directed other parks to avoid their own bans until further notice.
"A number of concessioners and bottled water suppliers have expressed concern over this initiative," Jo Pendry wrote last Jan. 11. "The Director has asked that we host a meeting with the water bottlers ... (and) also asked that no NEW initiatives be implemented until a Service-wide position is developed on this issue (e.g., no new water bottle bans!)"
The ban was championed as a way to reduce solid waste by Steve Martin, who retired as superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park earlier this year.
"Both the paper record is there for how widespread the understanding of what we were doing was, and the approvals," The Associated Press quoted him as saying last month. "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."
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