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Bottling Giant, Maine Residents Battle over Water

August 18, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Bottled water is a hot commodity -- Americans drank almost 9 billion gallons of it last year. But some Maine residents think less of it should come from their state. They are challenging Poland Spring over rights to the state's spring water aquifers. Tom Bearden reports.
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RALLY SPEAKER: Are you fired up? Yes, that’s what I’m talking about.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour correspondent: Bottled water might be popular with those Americans who drank almost 9 billion gallons of it last year. But this crowd says no more of it should be coming from Maine.

RALLY SPEAKER: Whose water is it?

CROWD: Ours!

RALLY SPEAKER: Whose water is it?

CROWD: Ours!

TOM BEARDEN: Maine is home to one of the best-selling brands of water in the country, Poland Spring: 700 million gallons of it get put into bottles every year. The protestors insist they should have some say about how much Poland Spring is allowed to pump and where.

MAINE RESIDENT: You can’t just have a meeting with 20 people here.

TOM BEARDEN: When most of them were not allowed into a Water Board meeting in Kennebunk, they said it was typical of how such deals are made: without enough public input.

MAINE RESIDENT: You should not advertise it as a meeting for the public and then have a private, closed meeting.

TOM BEARDEN: The few who were let in argued against a 30-year deal the board was going to make with Poland Spring, which is owned by Nestle Waters, a large multinational corporation.

MAINE RESIDENT: You live here, and you’re responsible to us, not to this corporation, and you cannot violate your public trust. So don’t do it. Don’t make a bad decision. You will live to regret it, I promise you.

TOM BEARDEN: Poland Spring’s senior natural resources manager Tom Brennan says the protests are short-sighted.

TOM BRENNAN, senior natural resource manager, Poland Spring: In the years that Nestle has owned the Poland Spring brand, Nestle’s invested $430-odd million in the economy of the state. And for a state like Maine, that’s a very substantial contribution.

Battle over water in Maine

TOM BEARDEN: The argument over the bottling of spring water isn't exclusive to Maine. People in California, Washington, and Michigan have also fought Nestle Waters' operations.

In Maine, the Poland Spring brand started out in 1845, with just one natural spring, now commemorated as a park. Now the company takes water from springs all over the state. The landscape is dotted with these pumping stations which tap into an aquifer below, a natural reservoir of exceptionally pure water.

Some fear that taking out large amounts of water from any aquifer might permanently damage its ability to purify and hold water. In Maine, former state representative Jim Wilfong founded a group called H20 for Me.

JIM WILFONG, founder, H20 for Me: This is a giant filtration system that has developed over millions of years and one that could not easily be replaced. And it would seem to me we ought to do the conservative thing, which is to take our time and really understand the exact science.

They have done some very, very preliminary studies, but it's very expensive to understand what's happening below the surface of the ground.

MARK DUBOIS, natural resource manager, Poland Spring: So this is one of the marching wells here.

TOM BEARDEN: Mark Dubois is the natural resource manager for Poland Spring. He says that the company has been closely monitoring the aquifer here in Hollis for eight years and has seen no evidence of any harm.

Is eight years long enough to know about the long-term health of these aquifers?

MARK DUBOIS: It gives you basically a level of confidence, eight years' worth of data certainly does. And you always want to continue to monitor an aquifer as we do every month, so it's important to check back.

We can make statistical and scientific assumptions of the future, but you always have to check back. And that's why there is an in-place system of monitoring and reporting month after month, year after year, any place that we are located.

TOM BEARDEN: Maine gets about 42 inches of rain each year. About 2 trillion gallons of that end up in the ground, recharging the aquifers; 8 billion gallons of water goes to domestic uses; 350 million gallons goes to irrigation; 250 million gallons to make snow at ski resorts; and about three-quarters of a billion gallons to bottled water.

There would seem to be enough water for everybody. But in the town of Fryeburg, near the New Hampshire border, some people who live on this lake, called Lovewell Pond, say the lake's health and the level of their wells has deteriorated since Poland Spring came to town.

Dubois insists his company has done no harm.

MARK DUBOIS: We have a rapidly renewable resource here in spring water. There are no depleted aquifer resources. We don't have wells that are drying up.

Local planning board is focus

TOM BEARDEN: But some residents apparently had had enough. There was an uproar when the Fryeburg Planning Board gave Poland Spring a permit for a second site to load the water it bought from a private company. So the board changed its mind, saying so many trucks would hurt the rural area.

Poland Spring sued, saying it had met all the Planning Board requirements. The case is still in the courts.

Jim Wilfong says, before any decisions are made, what's really needed is a long-term study.

Has there been any evidence that there has been any damage to any part of this ecosystem as a result of their extraction of water?

JIM WILFONG: Well, we're not really sure. There has been anecdotal information of Lovewell's Pond, and the pond seems to have green slime that it never had before.

And so we don't know really what's happening. That's all the more reason that we need to take a close, hard look at this. If they had to, they could move out of here and we could have a damaged aquifer, and that's a risk that I don't think we're willing to take.

TOM BEARDEN: The U.S. Geological Survey says there is a great deal of data on the size and recharge capacities of Maine aquifers and that site-specific studies and monitoring programs can successfully protect individual aquifers.

But the argument goes far deeper than the aquifer; it's also a sign of resentment of a giant multinational corporation doing business here.

Nestle Waters owns 72 brands of bottled water in 38 countries and is a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Nestle, the largest food company in the world.

JIM WILFONG: It is not really fair for any company, but a multinational company, a really large company, to come into a small town and essentially disrupt our entire culture and our way of life.

TOM BEARDEN: Dick Krasker, the head of the Fryeburg Water Board, believes fear of a huge corporation plays a part in the protests.

DICK KRASKER, chair, Fryeburg Water District: There's been a lot of fear ginned up in the community. And it's a problem.

TOM BEARDEN: Ginned up how?

DICK KRASKER: By a lot of emotion over water and a big corporation that -- people can't put their hand on a corporation. You know, somebody over in Sweden or in Switzerland is making the decisions. I mean, just people get nervous about that.

You know, we're used to dealing with people one-on-one in the community like this. You know, you want something done, you go, "Would you do this?" Yes, OK, you handshake, and it gets done, and we don't have big contracts, and so on. It's small-town life in America.

Who owns water?

TOM BEARDEN: David Guernsey, the former chairman of the Planning Board for the town of Kingfield, says he understands that the presence of such a large company can be a bit of overwhelming to some.

DAVID GUERNSEY, former chair, Kingfield Planning Board: Here is a company which has three times the income of the whole state of Maine put together. They're building a plant which is the same size as all residents in the town of Kingfield put together. And they're increasing the tax base by about 50 percent.

So it is a big deal for a small town like Kingfield, with maybe 1,100 people in it.

TOM BEARDEN: But Kingfield Town Selectman John Dill says Poland Spring was able to convince the town to build a new bottling plant there.

JOHN DILL, Kingfield town selectman: Poland Spring has done a really nice job of taking their time and giving the town and the Planning Board a lot of extra time to explain the scope of the project. They've done a lot of public hearings.

TOM BEARDEN: But the argument in the rest of the state is far from over. Under current state law, whoever owns the land has the rights to the water beneath it. That means Poland Spring, which owns or leases the majority of the land where it pumps, has rights to a large amount of groundwater.

Jim Wilfong is promoting a referendum that would change the law and put all groundwater into the public trust. Emily Posner wants to go much further: She'd like to prevent all companies from bottling and exporting water anywhere. She's an organizer for a group called Defending Water for Life.

EMILY POSNER, Defending Water for Life: Ultimately, I would love to see Nestle and Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, and all of the other bottled water industries stop putting water into little bottles and selling it for an enormous, enormous profit. Water belongs in the ecosystems where it comes from.

TOM BEARDEN: But Poland Spring's Tom Brennan says that's just not so.

TOM BRENNAN: Water falls from the earth -- or falls to the earth by precipitation, infiltrates the earth, and then discharges to surface water. It's continually moving. So in that respect, it doesn't stay in one place. And so the concept of ownership really doesn't apply.

TOM BEARDEN: Back in Kennebunk, after the protest, the head of the water district called for an indefinite tabling of the contract with Poland Spring.

In the meantime, Poland Spring continues to look for more sources of water to meet the growing demand for its products.