By Gail Geraghty, Bridgton News
DENMARK – Residents of this and tour surrounding town have joined forces to tight, and fight hard, against Nestle- Waters North America’s request for a renewal of its water extraction permit from a spring they own on Cold Springs Road.
Anger and a sense of determination prevailed among the nearly 40 people who met last Thursday to discuss action plans ranging from a water mining moratorium to a new ordinance with even stronger restrictions and conditions than the existing ordinance.
What a difference three years makes.
Back in May 2005, local residents were largely silent when multinational Nestle Waters asked for permission to dig a well and extract water to be pumped underground to a silo in East Fryeburg. The silo would serve as a tanker-truck filling station to send the water on its way to a bottling facility. Selectmen issued the permit, and residents passed a tough ordinance a year later giving the town the right to shut the extraction operation down if it was shown to be harming the underlying aquifer.
Since then, Fryeburg has been torn apart by the battle between “pro-” and “anti-Nestle” forces and a series of lawsuits and appeals, the latest of which awaits a hearing in the Maine Supreme Court. Work has yet to begin on the 40-foot tall silo. Meanwhile, residents of Shapleigh passed a six-month moratorium on Sept. 24 that stopped Nestle in its tracks and gained them national attention.
Thursday*s meeting began with some background on water rights issues by former state representative Jim Wilfong, who founded a group called H20 for Maine. The group helped pass legislation last year to give groundwater the same protection as surface water under the Natural Resource Protection Act.
Now he is promoting a referendum that would change the law and put all groundwater into the public trust. Under current state law. whoever owns the land has the rights to the water beneath it, a concept dating back to the late 1800s called “absolute dominion.’- governing everything from the surface of the ground to the center of the earth.
Poland Spring Water Company. Nestle” Waters’ Maine operation, began with one natural spring in Poland Spring and now has spring sources in eight communities. The Denmark permit allows Nestle” Waters, which owns 72 brands of bottled waters in 38 countries, to extract 105 million gallons of water a year â€” 300,000 gallons a day -from the Cold Springs well. The permit renewal calls for another well to be built 700 feet away from the first one, in order to ensure a reliable supply.
“We all know that groundwater moves all over, under the ground,” said Wilfong, who owns 600 acres of timberland in Stow. The aquifer under the land in Denmark and surrounding towns is huge, and what’s really needed is a long-term study, he said. “It’s about control, and protecting the water.”
His tone was even and measured â€” that is, until Mark Dubois, Poland Spring’s Natural Resource Manager, raised his hand.
“So you want to take control?” asked Dubois. “It sounds to me like a property rights issue.”
“That’s the way you see it,” Wilfong replied. “Some people don’t like it that our culture and our environment are being changed” “by Nestle’s activities in western Maine.
That prompted Emily Fletcher of Fryeburg to say that “we’re really grassroots people trying to confront what we see as a threat. We don’t have control, and I’m angry.”
She said Nestle” has changed the social environment in its 10 years in Fryeburg, pitting friends and families against each other.
“It is a highly charged political atmosphere,” she said, where people have been “put in office to support Nestie’s agenda.” When the Fryeburg Planning Board ruled against the company’s silo plans after it was remanded back to them by the Oxford County Superior Court, Nestle” once again appealed the decision.
“Now they’re about to appeal our court case for the sixth time. I think that’s dirty politics,” said Fletcher. “We have so far succeeded but we have succeeded because we haven’t failed,” she added, and urged Denmark residents to educate themselves if they want to be effective.
“I don’t think they understand or really care what we think â€” they are here for the resource,” Wilfong said.
Many residents of western Maine love the land as much as he does, he said. “I am wedded to this land. This, it seems to me, is the most important thing we could be working on. We are the children of Puritans, and we are not giving up.”
Later, the standoff between Dubois and Wilfong became more heated, as Dubois tried to “separate rumor from fact” and counter some of the opposition.
“I’m a geologist who lives in this state, and I am worried about the future of Maine as well,” Dubois said. But jobs and economic concerns also need to be taken into consideration along with protection of natural resources, just like in the paper industry, he said. Nestle Waters has done everything asked of them by the towns, he said, and provides a system of monthly monitoring and reporting of aquifer health in any place they are located.
“If you’re not impacting your neighbor and you’re running a good solid business, why is that wrong?” Dubois asked.
Wilfong said, “It is not all about just jobs, and jobs you think are good for our community. You ought to listen to us â€” we’re not just a bunch of ignorant hicks. We won’t agree with it, as long as we feel it is being crammed down our throat”
Helen Ramsdell, organizer of the Natural Resource Defenders that hosted the meeting, spoke to cut off the debate. “Mark has had his say.” She said the group needed to stay focused on deciding a strategy before the permit renewal comes up for a vote in November.
Wilfong said the group could circulate a petition calling for a moratorium that could be voted by residents at a special town meeting. “If you did that, you’d have time to figure out what kind of ordinance you might like to have.”
Resident Donna Fournier expressed frustration that at least one selectman, Ralph Sarty, has gone on record saying there’s little that residents can do to prevent the permit renewal as long as the company agrees to abide by the restrictions and conditions of an ordinance passed in 2006 and used as a model for many other Maine towns.
“If it wasn’t for Helen Ramsdell (who spread the word), we would have a selectman pushing this renewal through and the people of Denmark wouldn’t even know,” Fournier said. “That’s what scares me â€” Fryeburg has said no but Nestle” won’t listen.”
Lee Goldsberry, a candidate for the District 99 House seat, said one of the major concerns he’s running on is the need to protect Maine’s groundwater from pollution and from commercial exploitation. He thinks that there ought to be a fee for mass extraction of water in Maine.
Upon hearing that, several people asked him if he had signs they could put up on their lawns. Goldsberry went out to his car and came back with an armful.