Maine Activists Win First Victory As Nestle Water Deal Vote Is Delayed

Seth Harkness

KENNEBUNK - Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District trustees delayed action Wednesday on a proposal to sell water to Poland Spring after protesters gathered at district offices to show their displeasure.0626 04 1

The four trustees voted unanimously to postpone the decision until July 30 to allow for an independent scientific review of the data underlying the proposed deal with Poland Spring, according to water district Superintendent Norm Labbe.

He said the district also needs time to create question-and-answer sheets to give residents a factual accounting of the proposed deal.

Labbe said he is concerned that the public has many misconceptions about the deal. "We want factual information not misinformation and hype," he said.

As trustees discussed the proposal to let Poland Spring draw as much as 250,000 gallons a day from district-owned land in Wells, about 100 protesters gathered outside the district office on Main Street, some of them chanting and shouting.

Some were residents who oppose the proposed deal; others were members of outside groups that are waging campaigns against the bottled water industry and the sale of water in general.

Poland Spring approached the water district about the potential deal because the company continues to look for additional sources of water to meet the company's projected growth in the next few years.

Poland Spring Natural Resources Manager Tom Brennan, who attended the meeting, said he hoped the company would be able to reach out to the rate-paying public and address concerns about the contract.

Though the district invited public comment on Wednesday, only a fraction of the crowd could fit into the small municipal office where the meeting was held. Some people rapped on the windows in protest until it was announced that the trustees had rescheduled the vote.


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The deal, which Poland Spring and the water district have been discussing for about a year, gained little attention until it was widely reported in the last few weeks that the trustees intended to approve it at their June meeting.

Labbe has defended the deal, saying the district can easily spare the water, and the expected $500,000 per year in revenue would help offset rising costs and control rates.

Opponents, led by Jamilla El-Shafei of Kennebunk, recently teamed up with members of national campaigns against the bottled water industry. A public meeting on the issue Sunday night drew more than 100 people to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kennebunk.

On Wednesday, Erik Johnson of Hollis told protesters that he believes his town was "sold down the river" when it invited Poland Spring to build a bottling plant there. He said the rumble of Poland Spring trucks has become a constant in his life and he wishes the town had never invited the company into the community with a tax break.

Other speakers predicted dire consequences related to surrendering control of water supplies to Poland Spring's parent company. Poland Spring is a subsidiary of Nestle Waters North America.

"We're here because this multinational corporation from away is trying to come into our state and our 'bioregion' and take our water," said Emily Posner of Montville, the state leader of Defending Water for Life, a project of the national Alliance for Democracy. Posner said her campaign is organized around the idea that nobody should profit from water.

Annie Weinberg is an organizer with the "Take Back the Tap" campaign of the Washington, D.C.-based Food and Water Watch, which recently released a study claiming that water plant jobs are low-paying and dangerous. Weinberg said her organization believes the bottled water industry comes at the expense of public water supplies.

Brennan, the Poland Spring natural resources manager, said his company does not work in opposition to public water supplies and provides hundreds of good-paying jobs in rural areas of Maine. He said the company has an inherent interest in the sustainability of its product and has worked to minimize the plastic content of its bottles.

El-Shafei said she plans to have more opponents at the trustees' July meeting. "This place will be packed," she said. "I'll get 1,000 people there."

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