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Originally published May 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 8, 2008 at 7:57 AM

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Nickels: Tap your tap to quench that thirst

When Mayor Greg Nickels drives in his car, he carries a plastic container filled with tap water. He says it's his small effort to save the...

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Mayor Greg Nickels drives in his car, he carries a plastic container filled with tap water.

He says it's his small effort to save the environment.

On Wednesday morning, Nickels launched a bigger mission: To try to get Seattleites to stop buying bottled water.

With a 5-foot-tall stack of water bottles and 56 oil barrels as a backdrop at Westlake Park, Nickels announced a "drink up" campaign, saying that buying bottled water costs 2,400 times as much as drinking tap water — and Seattle has some of the best city water in the world.

But Nickels immediately drew protests from many Seattle residents who complained that city water doesn't taste so good because of chlorine or other problems. And some said they worried about the safety of drinking water from old pipes.

One resident said he lives in an old home with galvanized pipes.

"Replacing them is fairly expensive, and drinking water from this is simply not safe," he said.

The stack of water bottles at Nickels' announcement represented the number of empty bottles that end up in the city's garbage every 37 minutes. The oil barrels represented the amount of oil consumed to make and transport the bottled water that Seattle consumes in 12 hours.

Nickels said the city charges one-third of a cent for a gallon of water, compared to an average of 79 cents for a pint of bottled water.

Nickels also said Seattle residents use the equivalent of about 354,000 pint bottles of water a day. That equals about 41,000 barrels of oil, creating 5,400 tons of greenhouse gases.

While plastic bottles can be recycled, city officials said too many people don't do it. According to Seattle Public Utilities, 49 percent of the water bottles used in the city are recycled.

But one bottled-water company said the mayor is not being fair by blaming the problem on the bottles.

"A lot has been made of the fact that Seattle is such a recycling city," said Rob Enright, sales manager with Mountain Mist bottled water. "We're a fully recycled product. Instead of attacking us the way they are, they should look at the recycling problem. We're a good alternative to soda."

Enright said he worries that the mayor's crusade against bottled water could have a huge impact on his business.

"We're in a situation in the economy that a lot of things are affecting us," he said. "They say we're doing all this damage to the environment, but we don't believe that we are."

Nickels said the city's two water sources, the Cedar and Tolt rivers, produce "gold standard" water, and tap water is better than bottled water because it contains fluoride.

"What flows from our taps is some of the finest-tasting, purest-source water in the world," he said. "That's why it makes little sense for Seattleites to waste their money on bottled water."

Nickels said all Seattle residents will receive a water report card in the mail, explaining the quality of the city's drinking water.

Andy Ryan, spokesman for Seattle Public Utilities, said older, galvanized pipes can cause rusty water, but it's still perfectly safe to drink.

"We believe most people's pipes are safe," he said.

Seattle Public Utilities acknowledges that some older homes may have plumbing that contains lead and can be tested by private labs if residents are concerned.

In March, Nickels directed the city to stop buying bottled water, estimating it could save taxpayers as much as $57,000 a year. While there is no bottled water now in City Hall, the order doesn't go into effect until January for other city facilities.

The "drink up" campaign is just Nickels' latest attack on plastic. Last month, he and City Council President Richard Conlin proposed a 20-cent fee on all disposable grocery bags.

At the same time Nickels made his announcement Wednesday, another organization, Water Without Waste, comprised of eight businesses and nonprofits, said it received pledges from individuals and organizations to cut back on bottled water to save about 20,000 plastic, disposable water bottles during May.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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