By Steve Bodnar, SeacoastOnline
Nestle Waters North America, parent company of Poland Spring, was in the crossfire at a crowded Oct. 22 presentation at the Wells Activity Center, just 12 days before a local vote that could affect how the company is able to conduct business in town.
Hosted by local water-rights activists and attended by more than 50 people, the presentation detailed the legal battle between a Michigan water-rights group and Nestle. That battle was eventually settled in July 2009, after years in court.
Terry Swier, the president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, said her group felt that Nestle Waters’ day-to-day bottling operations would hurt the water supply and the environment, so they took the company to court.
“I don’t want your community to go through what our community and grassroots organization had to go through,” said Swier, who is from Mecosta County Michigan.
Swier said she was speaking in Wells to equate her personal story to what water-rights activists in town and the surrounding communities are facing.
On Nov. 3 residents will vote on a proposed ordinance that would regulate how a company like Poland Spring extracts water in town, including how much a company could withdraw.
Opponents of the ordinance comprised the majority of the audience Thursday.
Swier told the crowd that after numerous court hearings and about $1 million in legal fees, Nestle finally proposed to reduce its water extraction operations for its bottled water product by about 50 percent.
Nestle Waters had originally been allowed to extract 400 gallons per minute, but the figure was reduced to 218.
The measurement of gallons per minute is an average for the entire year, Swier said.
“Nestle came into Michigan claiming no adverse effects on the environment,” she said, alleging that was not the case.
Deborah Muchmore, spokesperson for Nestle Waters in Michigan, said Swier’s presentation is “factually inaccurate and misleading.”
“Extensive monitoring data, reviewed by Mrs. Swiers’ organization’s hydrologist, shows no evidence of harm to groundwater, surface water or the local ecology … ,” wrote Muchmore in an Oct. 22 press release.
The presentation contained before-and-after photographs of mudflats near a Nestle Water operation in Michigan.
The comparison alleged that the mudflats were created because of Nestle’s water extraction.
“Mudflats existed years before (Nestle) considered operations in the area, and are not consequence of … withdrawals,” Muchmore wrote.
Many of those who asked Swier questions after the presentation lamented that the Michigan experience was necessary to illustrate what is happening in Wells.
Near the end of the presentation, a member of the Ordinance Review Committee, who helped draft the ordinance that is slated for the Nov. 3 referendum, questioned why the meeting was even being held.
“And what does any of this have to do with Wells, Maine?” blurted Jason Heft only minutes after he walked into the packed room.
He left the activity center shortly thereafter.
After the meeting, Wells resident Dick Fowler said he’d wished more people unsure about their position on the local water-rights debate had attended the meeting.