Activist Alert: Nestle Again Goes after Spring Water in Wells

Staff Writer

Poland Spring and the water district that serves Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells are close to striking a deal that would allow the company to draw water from one of the district’s underground springs, although a fledgling group of opponents hopes to delay the process.

The deal with the water district is the latest expansion proposal in Maine from the iconic bottled-water company, which has seen sales rise from $407 million in 2000 to $878 million last year.

For the past year and a half, the water district and Poland Spring have discussed a contract that would give the bottler permission to drill into sandy soil on the north side of Branch Brook in Wells. The company would draw up to 250,000 gallons of water per day, although the exact quantity has not been established.

Poland Spring would pump the water through a mile-long pipe to a fill station that would be built on Route 109 inSanford, where the water would be loaded onto trucks and sent to the bottling plant in Hollis. In return, Poland Spring would pay the water district a per-gallon rate expected to total $250,000 per year to start. The amount could grow to as much as $750,000, depending on the quantity sold. Water district trustees will hold a public hearing on the proposal and vote on it June 25.

Norm Labbe, superintendent of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District, said the utility could sell that much water and still have ample reserves to meet the needs of residents. Although a quarter-million gallons per day sounds like a sizable number, Labbe said it actually is small compared with the district’s daily usage.

The district, which serves up to 75,000 people during busy summer months, uses 7 million gallons per day at times of peak demand. In the past few years, the district has found additional groundwater sources on utility-owned land with the capacity to provide 3 million gallons per day, more than 10 times the quantity Poland Spring wants to buy, Labbe said.

He said the 30-year deal with Poland Spring would allow the nonprofit utility to develop additional water reserves and control rates for customers.

Some residents, however, say it’s a bad deal and that they’ll urge the water district to delay its vote. Jamilla El-Shafei of Kennebunk said Friday that more than 100 residents plan to attend a meeting on the proposal beginning at 6 p.m. on June 22. The group has reserved space at the Unitarian church in Kennebunk, but hopes to get permission to use Kennebunk Town Hall in case the turnout is much larger.

El-Shafei said members think the proposed deal is a bad one financially, and they worry that it could affect the local water supply in the long run. She said Labbe will be invited to the meeting to answer residents’ questions.

The deal also would involve Poland Spring buying 150 acres in the vicinity of Branch Brook, protecting an important piece of the local watershed, Labbe said.

”It’s a sizable increase in revenue,” he said. ”I feel it’s in the best interest of Branch Brook and the customers.”

PURSUING NEW WATER SOURCES

The bottling company is a subsidiary of Nestle Waters North America, but still maintains its headquarters in Poland Spring, a village in the Androscoggin County town of Poland. Its natural resource manager, Mark Dubois, said the company approached the water district about the potential deal because Poland Spring continues to look for additional sources of water to meet the company’s projected growth in the next few years.

Dubois said the spring in Wells is attractive because of its proximity to the bottling plant and because the sandy aquifer in Wells creates a ”taste profile” similar to that of water found in Hollis.

”The taste is there,” he said.

In the past few years, Poland Spring has looked for new sources of water throughout southern and western Maine to supply its bottling plants in Hollis and Poland Spring. A third bottling plant in Kingfield is set to open at the end of the year.

The company examines more than 100 potential new sources of water each year, but rarely does it get to the stage where it seeks to develop one, Dubois said. Poland Spring currently has two contracts to buy water in Maine — with the state for water drawn from Range Pond State Park in Poland, and with Pure Mountain Spring in Fryeburg.

Dubois said the company is growing about 10 percent a year, although as the industry matures in coming years, the rate is expected to be in single digits.

The $878 million in domestic sales last year, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., rank Poland Spring as the third-leading brand of bottled water in the country, behind PepsiCo’s Aquafina and Coca Cola Co.’s Dasani. Poland Spring took 700 million gallons of water from the ground last year, compared with 500 million gallons in 2005. Its work force has grown from about 600 in 2006 to more than 800 this year, Dubois said.

WATER PLANS MEET RESISTANCE

Poland Spring’s search for new water supplies has sometimes generated strong reactions from residents, especially in the Fryeburg area, where people are concerned about their water supply and the addition of heavy truck traffic on local roads.

A citizens group concerned about the environmental impacts of Poland Spring operations recently proposed a 19-cents-per-gallon tax on large water bottlers. The 2005 initiative failed to collect enough valid signatures to place the issue before voters.

Organizers of the effort dropped a second attempt last year after they collaborated with Poland Spring on a bill that was signed by Gov. John Baldacci. The legislation requires a more thorough process, with greater transparency for the public, in reviewing water extraction applications. It also sets sustainability standards for extraction.

The company approached the town of Shapleigh this spring to explore buying water from an aquifer on town-owned property. The town has yet to vote on whether to pursue negotiations, but at public meetings earlier this year many residents voiced concerns about trucks and the adequacy of the water supply.

DISTRICT’S TRUSTEES TO DECIDE

Joan Mooney, a member of the Wells Board of Selectmen, said she has not heard similar concerns from local residents regarding the proposed deal with Poland Spring.

In this case, the decision on entering into a deal is in the hands of the water district’s elected trustees, who verbally supported it at their meeting last month. If the trustees vote for the contract, the district will have to apply to the state Department of Environmental Protection for a permit to sell the water.

In Sanford, where Poland Spring proposes building a pumping station, Town Manager Mark Green said he has seen no specific plans for the project. But he said the town would welcome the tax revenue and he remains cautiously supportive.

”I guess we’re supportive of anything that brings some commerce and some jobs that are environmentally friendly,” he said.

Green said the pumping station would be well-situated near Sanford airport because there are no residential abutters and it is a part of town where Sanford seeks to attract industry.

If Poland Spring were to pump 250,000 gallons a day in Wells, moving the water would require an additional 31 daily truck trips along routes 109 and 4 between Sanford and Hollis. Green said he didn’t believe that would pose a problem because the two roads already are major trucking routes.

If the Poland Spring plan works out, Dubois said it would be at least 2010 before the company placed any water from Wells in its signature clear-plastic bottles with the green label. By federal law, he said, Poland Spring would be required to note on each bottle the location of the spring from which the water is drawn.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Seth Harkness can be contacted at 282-8225 or at:

sharkness@pressherald.com

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