For eight years, the North Carolina Spring Water Association has been trying to keep bottlers from calling their product “spring water” unless nature causes it to bubble up on its own. “If it comes from North Carolina and says natural spring water on the label, we just want to make sure that’s what it is,” says President Robert Plimpton, owner of a spring in Henderson County.
This year, the association has made some headway in the state legislature. Its bill, packing potential fines for impostor bottlers, made it through the Senate, which sent it to the House. Opposition has come not from the North Carolina Beverage Association, which represents most of the state’s large soft-drink bottlers — most also bottle water — but from out-of-state bottlers and Tar Heel merchants. Andrew Ellen, general counsel of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, argues that the legislation would regulate a marketing matter: what to call a product.
Supporters say there’s more to it than that. Large bottlers who mislabel products as spring water cut into their sales. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration set the stage for the fight in 1996 when it said products labeled as spring water could come from a well drilled into the underground source of a natural spring. Plimpton considers that cheating. “Natural springs have to go through a two-year testing process before being approved. But if you drill a well next to a spring, you can be selling the water in 30 days. You can have a septic tank within 100 feet of the well.” N.C. Department of Agriculture rules, he says, prohibit roads, buildings and other development around natural springs.
However, Agriculture Department officials say that, once in the bottle, well water and spring water must meet the same purity standards. Sandy Gott, owner of Canada-based Ice River Springs Water Co., which draws from a spring near Morganton, told legislators that wells are less environmentally invasive than piping water from natural springs and less likely to be contaminated. Beyond that, there’s no conclusive evidence that bottled water at $1 or more per 20-ounce bottle is any better than tap water at two cents a gallon.
Bottlers use about 20 natural springs in North Carolina, and spring owners aren’t about to give up the fight. If the House doesn’t pass the bill this year, Plimpton says, they’ll just keep coming back.
Hill bill will return
The hills aren’t getting any flatter, so state Rep. Ray Rapp is not giving up his drive to regulate construction on steep slopes prone to deadly landslides (“A Slippery Slope,” June 2007). After his bill stalled this session, the Mars Hill Democrat shunted it to a study committee for some tinkering and plans to reintroduce it next year. Landslides in western North Carolina have killed six people in five years, but the North Carolina Home Builders Association and real-estate groups have beaten back efforts to tighten regulations. Rapp’s bill also suffered because mountain legislators couldn’t agree on exactly what it should say.