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Grand Canyon banning sales of bottled water

Water filling stations like this one are deployed across Grand Canyon National Park.

Activists concerned that Coca-Cola might be influencing National Park Service policy were breathing a bit easier Tuesday after the Grand Canyon National Park announced it would eliminate the sale of bottled water inside the park within 30 days.

"Our parks should set the standard for resource protection and sustainability," John Wessels, regional director for the park service, said in a statement. "I feel confident that the impacts to park concessioners and partners have been given fair consideration and that this plan can be implemented with minimal impacts to the visiting public."

The move came after activists on Dec. 2 released an email from National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis in which he stated that "while I applaud the intent (of the ban), there are going to be consequences, since Coke is a major sponsor of our recycling efforts."

Coca-Cola is also a major vendor of water and other drinks throughout the parks system.

The email disclosure was followed by Jarvis on Dec. 14 directing parks to implement a policy to reduce and recycle disposable water bottles. Included was "an option to eliminate in-park sales" if the regional director so approved and "following a thorough analysis of a variety of factors ranging from the cost to install water filling stations, to the cost and availability of BPA-free reusable containers, to potential effects on public safety," the park service stated. 

The group that obtained the email, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told msnbc.com that while it considers the decision a victory it still has concerns.

"While we are happy that Director Jarvis has reversed course, the record clearly shows intense public scrutiny forced this abrupt U-turn -- it did not result from a dispassionate or open decision-making process," PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said. "We hope this episode will limit the role of corporate donors in park management decisions."

Ruch said PEER still questions several provisions that he called "bureaucratic hoops" -- including ones that require any park seeking to ban plastic bottles to run it by the NPS health office and take annual surveys on visitor satisfaction and sales revenues.

"While Grand Canyon National Park has apparently met these requirements," he said, "another dozen parks, including Yellowstone and Death Valley, that had been considering bottle bans when Jarvis issued his system-wide moratorium may be deterred."

Grand Canyon National Park estimates that the waste associated with disposable bottles makes up 20 percent of its overall waste stream and 30 percent of its recyclables. It has also "experienced increasing amounts of litter associated with disposable plastic bottles along trails both on the rim and within the inner canyon, marring canyon viewpoints and visitor experiences," the park service stated.

Coke, Grand Canyon bottled water controversy gets murkier

"We want to minimize both the monetary and environmental costs associated with water packaged in disposable containers," added Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga.

Visitors instead are encouraged to bring or buy reusable water bottles, which can be refilled for free at stations throughout the park that use spring water.

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