Water debate rages (Wells, ME)

By Steve Bodnar, Seacoast Online,  October 22, 2009

Allegations about scare tactics and blurred facts were rife during a crowded Oct. 20 Board of Selectmen public hearing on an ordinance proposal that would regulate how a company such as Poland Spring could use water in town.

Proponents of the ordinance alleged activists have spread hype about the ramifications of large-scale water extraction, while the opposition argued that ordinance supporters have mislead the public on the ordinance in general.

I’m mad as hell,” said Jamilla El-Shafei, a water-rights activist from Kennebunk, who alleged that phone calls were made Oct. 20 to Wells residents telling them that if they wanted to reject the ordinance they should vote “yes,” when in fact a “no” vote would oppose it.

El-Shafei, who has spoken out against Poland Spring and its parent company, Nestlé Waters North America, said the alleged phone calls were outright wrong.

Some of the more than dozen people who spoke about the ordinance, reiterated that “yes” means in favor of the ordinance and “no” means against it. About 60 people attended the meeting.

Opposition to Poland Spring operations from water rights activists ignited in 2008 when the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Wells Water District began forming a deal in 2008 with the bottled water brand to allow it to take water from the Branch Brook Aquifer.

After some public outcry, district trustees eventually rejected the deal in its entirety.

During the Oct. 20 public hearing, Wells resident Ed Swift, a mechanic for Poland Spring, said, generally speaking, allegations against his employer were misguided and the company indeed provides jobs and works to better the communities in which it operates.

Other proponents of the ordinance also argued that one of the best ways to protect Wells in light of the water rights debate is to regulate extraction, not ban it.

Banning it would open the town to unnecessary litigation, they said.

According to the ordinance, large-scale water extraction is defined as “a total daily amount on any given day of 20,000 gallons or more, extracted by the same individual or entity …; regardless of (the number of extraction facilities.” The ordinance also proposes monitoring wells to help report usage.

While both the proponents and opponents to the ordinance opined about their frustrations at the meeting, one fact was evident — a moratorium on large-scale water extraction will remain in place if the ordinance fails voter muster during the Nov. 3 referendum.

“We can enact a moratorium up to six months if we are working to solve a problem,” said Selectman Chairman Richard Clark during the meeting. “If a moratorium is proposed this evening it will go forward if the ordinance gets voted down.”

Selectmen, in a 4-1 vote approved extending the moratorium for another 180 days on the condition that it would take effect if the ordinance fails.

Selectman Jim Spiller voted against the moratorium, which was first enacted by voters in November 2008.

Debate also ensued about whether a large-scale water extractor like Poland Spring could extract water in town if it only had a single permit from the Department of Environmental Protection and no extraction permit from Wells.

According to Andy Fisk, director of Maine’s DEP, if nothing was written in a town law to regulate or permit water extraction and, at the same time, his department were to issue a permit, then an operation could move forward, as long as it met other local guidelines.

Selectman Bob Foley said that in 1997 a water-extraction operation was set up on Wire Road in Wells with only a permit from the DEP, and that the plan moved forward without the town’s knowledge.

He argued that in light of a similar issue, the proposed ordinance is needed to protect the town.

Selectman Chris Chase said he is in favor of the ordinance because it sets up protections for the town, but that he has a problem banking on information provided from the DEP, as well as secondhand information from people talking about DEP regulations.

“No — I’m all set in trusting the DEP,” Chase said.