The Great Sucking Sound

Bart Sipriano's well dried up four days after Ozarka started pumpin massive amount of water nearby. Under the state's archaic "rule of capture," the East Texan has no right to complain.

Hers is just part of the mistrust, bordering on paranoia, that permeates the battle between the landowners and their corporate neighbor.

A slew of signs reading "Save Our Water. Get Out Ozarka!" have sprouted across the area, the work of Dale Groom's opposition group, which is called Rohr Spring Citizens. (The landowners can't even agree with Ozarka how to spell the name of the spring.) Groom, 55, an author of Texas gardening books, has the personality of someone who frequently calls radio talk shows to kvetch about government. On his scenic 90-acre spread, he draws water from the Wilcox aquifer, which is below the Carrizo. He therefore cannot say Ozarka is affecting his land.

But he does claim that the company tried to lease part of it once -- and that it went about its plan in a most deceptive way.

Here's how he tells it: In the late 1980s, a young man posing as a Southern Methodist University graduate student showed up on his doorstep and asked if he could explore Groom's land for a research paper he was writing on the flow of springs. Groom gave him run of his property. Several months later, the same young man showed up with an Ozarka executive, who asked if Groom would be willing to lease part of his property. Ozarka apparently wanted to build a truck turnaround and holding tanks there -- the same setup the company eventually built along the dirt road that leads to Sipriano's place. Groom told the two men to bug off, and he never heard from them again.

"And I'm supposed to trust these people?" he asks.
(Ozarka officials say they suspect the young man initially identified himself to Groom as an Ozarka employee, and that Groom may be intentionally distorting the facts to make the company look bad.)

Before Ozarka moved to Roher Spring, it pulled out of one in Nacogdoches. The spring water Ozarka was extracting there began showing high levels of a mineral that, when mixed with disinfecting ozone at the bottling plant, produced unsightly flakes in the water. The owners of the spring sued Ozarka, claiming the company ruined their spring by causing the infiltration of the mineral. Ozarka denied it was at fault, chalking it up to natural changes that sometimes can occur within an aquifer. Yet Ozarka settled the lawsuit. Under settlement terms, both sides agreed not to talk about the case. The silence, Groom figures, must mean the company has something to hide.

Another story of mutual mistrust stems from the time one of Sipriano's relatives found a lost notebook on the dirt road. It contained the appointments calendar of Steve Bendix, Ozarka's director of manufacturing and one of Perrier's top executives in Texas, along with some documents that looked official. Sipriano turned the notebook over to Rea, who submitted it to the court.

Ozarka officials wonder if the lawyer's motives were vindictive, perhaps hoping the documents contained proprietary information that a competitor might find useful. Rea, however, says her only motive was to provide the court and Ozarka something she might use -- but ultimately didn't -- as evidence in the case. The notebook contains a smattering of information about The Perrier Group's several brands of spring waters. Ozarka officials say that nothing in the notebook was proprietary, and that Bendix lost it after he put it on the hood of his car, got distracted, and drove off.

Gordon King, a particularly opinionated member of Groom's anti-Ozarka clan, thinks he's got the mystery of the notebook all figured out: "I think Ozarka planted it there to get us off track, because there was nothing in there that was of any use to us at all."

In Eustace, population 769 and the closest town to Ozarka's pumping operation, a short stack of pancakes costs $1.75 at the Town Square Cafe.

The restaurant borders the town square -- a wooden gazebo surrounded by grass, wrought-iron benches, and globe lampposts. Ozarka donated $2,850 to the city of Eustace to finish constructing the sidewalk along the square. The company has also donated two trucks to the volunteer fire department. The city draws its water from the Wilcox aquifer, but Ozarka still gives away crates of bottled water in town.

Several cases are stacked in the corner of Jolene Morgan's barber shop. She's the president of the Eustace Chamber of Commerce, which sells the bottles at 50 cents a pop during community events to raise money. To her, Ozarka has been a great neighbor.

"People say Ozarka is responsible for drying up a well," she says. "I don't know anything about that. All I know is that we didn't have $2,800 lying around to finish up our sidewalk."

Inside City Hall, Eustace police chief Jerry Mills gives a sarcastic no-comment when asked if Ozarka has been a good neighbor. "Until the laws change, they haven't violated any laws," he finally says.

From the town square, Morgan glares at one of Groom's "Save Our Water. Get Out Ozarka!" signs that hangs high on a tree. "I'd like to get a chain saw and take all those down," she says.

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