It was a win for corporate control of public water on Thursday for one Maine town.
The winner in the case is Nestlé Waters of North America, which operates locally as Poland Spring. Fryeburg, Maine property owner Bruce Taylor and advocacy group Food & Water Watch had challenged the decision by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that afforded the company the right to bottle and sell off water from the aquifer.
The Portland, Maine Press Herald reports:
The contract gives Poland Spring – a subsidiary of Nestle Waters – leasing rights to withdraw up to 603,000 gallons of water per day at the same basic rate as Fryeburg residents.
Taylor and Food and Water Watch had argued that the water district's charter didn't allow for bulk extraction, bottling and reselling of the water, but Maine's top court disagreed, upholding the deal that allows the company to lease premises and purchase water. The court found "that there was no abuse of discretion or violation of statutory provision," the Associated Press reports. The ruling states, "The proposed agreement was for twenty-five years, with the option of four additional five-year extensions."
The Bangor Daily News points out that
All three of the PUC’s commissioners recused themselves from the case over conflicts of interest, as they each had business involvement with Nestle Waters prior to their appointment to the commission. The impasse resulted in new state law allowing Gov. Paul LePage to appoint as alternate commissioners three retired judges: Paul Rudman, John Atwood and Francis Marsano.
Colin Woodard explored this conflict of interest in depth back in 2013 for the Press Herald in an article entitled "For regulators and Nestlé Waters, conflict by the gallon." And while some residents may welcome the $12,000 a month the new contract makes Nestle pay to the town and believe that the company is operating fairly, Woodard's reporting also pointed to the approach to water as a commodity that has raised the ire of critics in Fryeburg and beyond:
Some residents question the arrangement and mistrust the motives of Nestle SA, whose global CEO, Peter Brabeck, has repeatedly argued that water is not a human right, apart from the 6.6 gallons per day he says a person needs for hydration and basic hygiene. Water used for other purposes must have “a price,” he has said regularly, in order to spur necessary infrastructure investments needed to conserve a precious resource he predicts the planet will run short of long before oil.
Nisha Swinton, a senior organizer with Food & Water Watch issued a statement following the decision, calling it "a profound loss for Maine's citizens" that "paves the way for a private corporation to profit from a vital public resource for decades to come."
"Water is a basic right," she added. "No private company should be allowed to rake in profits from water while leaving a local community high and dry. As we've seen in communities around the country, selling off Fryeburg's water will do nothing to help the town's residents.
"Nestlé has a long history of bullying communities into selling off public assets for private profit. Unfortunately, they've won this round," Swinton said.