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Kicking the bottle (Portland, ME Phoenix)

By BRIDGET HUBER. The Phoenix, November 26, 2008

As several Maine towns battle the plans of Poland Spring (and its parent company Nestle Waters North America) to expand water-pumping operations across the state, a group of water-rights activists will bring the issue to Portland this Saturday with a screening of the award-winning documentary FLOW: For Love of Water, a panel discussion, and a workshop aimed at convincing restaurant owners to take bottled water off their menus.

Nestle’s foes cite a litany of reasons to kick the bottle. The long-term impacts of water extraction on aquifers and other bodies of water are not yet known. Bottled water is also vastly more expensive and less stringently regulated than tap water. And then there is waste: According to Food and Water Watch, a Washington DC-based consumer non-profit advocating for clean water and safe food, 1.5 million tons of plastic are made into water bottles each year, using 47 million gallons of oil.

Nestle spokeswoman Jane Lazgin says water is a healthy alternative to sugary or high-calorie bottled drinks, and notes that her company is taking steps to reduce its environmental impact — she highlights the “Eco-Shape” half-liter bottle, introduced in 2007, which uses 30 percent less plastic than its predecessor and is fully recyclable.

But for activist Mary Taylor, the true heart of the matter is corporate control of a essential resource. “It’s water for life, not water for profit,” she says. Taylor lives in Shapleigh, where Nestle angered many residents by sinking test wells at a state-owned wildlife management area two years ago without public comment. When the company approached Shapleigh’s selectmen earlier this year about pumping water from town land, residents petitioned for and passed a six-month moratorium on testing and large-scale pumping, allowing the town to enact an ordinance to spell out the terms of how, when, and if water can be pumped or tested.

Earlier this month, Wells voters followed suit; Denmark residents are gathering signatures to pass their own moratorium. A group of Fryeburg residents has been fighting a Nestle tanker-truck loading center for more than three years. And a group of Rangeley residents has boycotted Nestle water after the Maine Supreme Court’s July ruling upholding a 2006 Land Use Regulation Commission decision that lets Nestle develop a pumping station in nearby Dallas Plantation. Local residents say the pumping has caused changes in Rangeley’s water table and the company’s trucks are straining their roads.

“The community struggles that are happening in Maine aren’t isolated,” says Amy Dowley, a Maine-based national organizer for Food and Water Watch who has organized similar film screenings and discussions in cities across the country. FLOW, which will screen December 6 at 7 pm at the Movies on Exchange (followed by a panel discussion), is often described as the An Inconvenient Truth of water issues, and is a globetrotting exploration of the global water crisis, discussing water pollution and privatization in places as disparate as Michigan, Bolivia, and India.

Earlier in the day, at 12:30 pm, anyone interested can stop by the Meg Perry Center (at 644 Congress Street) to learn more about these issues, and volunteer to head out around Portland to ask restaurant owners to join Food and Water Watch’s Take Back the Tap effort by pledging to serve tap water instead of bottled. So far, six Portland restaurants, Local 188, Downtown Lounge, Norm’s East End Grill, Norm’s Bar and Grill, Ruski’s, and the North Star Cafû, have joined in. Dowley expects many others will follow suit: “What you give up in profits you make up for in customer relations, and you reduce a lot of waste,” she says.

It’s unclear what effect the effort would have: Nestle’s Lazgin says sales to restaurants and bars make up less than 10 percent of the company’s business.

City councilor Dave Marshall, who will speak as part of Saturday’s panel, says he’d like to see local bars required to offer tap water to all patrons so the cost of bottled water doesn’t discourage them from drinking water while imbibing. And, by drinking city water (which, by the way, met every federal and state requirement in 2007, according to the Portland Water District’s 2008 Water Quality Report) instead of bottled, consumers help ensure that it stays safe, says Marshall: “If people are drinking tap water they can continue to demand that we have appropriate funding for our public water infrastructure. The result will be cleaner water for future generations.”

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