Friday, September 20, 2013

Water Rights: Activists fight Poland Spring, conflicted regulators

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Objecting to the prospect that allegedly biased state officials might approve a decades-long deal that would let Poland Spring bottle and sell for massive profit Maine’s naturally occurring drinking water, a growing group of Mainers is stepping up its activity with an audience-participation protest in Portland during this week’s First Friday Art Walk.
The deal, arguments for and against which were heard by the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday, is between Nestle, the Swiss-based multinational conglomerate that owns Poland Spring, and the privately owned Fryeburg Water Company. It is a 25-year agreement that would have four five-year automatic extension periods.
Under the contract, which needs PUC approval to take effect, Nestle would pay for at least 75 million gallons of water each year (roughly the amount it now takes, though it’s allowed to take nearly twice as much).
The current rate of one-tenth of one cent per gallon means Nestle is agreeing to pay just $75,000 for all that water, though if the water company raises its rates in the future, Nestle would have to pay more. Nevertheless, the markup is pretty big: a 24-pack of 16.9-ounce bottles of Poland Spring water can be found for $6.99, or $2.20 a gallon — 2200 times as expensive. The deal would also have Nestle pay a flat fee of $144,000 a year in rent for its use of water company land as a loading station for trucks taking water to Nestle bottling plants in Hollis and Kingfield.
The protest event’s announcement comes just days after Portland Press Herald investigative reporter Colin Woodard revealed that all three members of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission, which will rule on the contract, and the head of the Public Advocate’s Office, which is charged with defending the public interest in utilities-regulation proceedings, have longstanding professional ties to Nestle.
One PUC member, Mark Vannoy, who worked as an environmental engineer on as many as 15 Nestle projects in Maine, has already recused himself. So has Public Advocate Timothy Schneider (his deputy, William Black, is handling the case). PUC member David Littell, who was a former partner in Pierce Atwood, Nestle’s lobbying firm, but never worked directly with the company, has said he will not recuse himself. The remaining PUC member, chairman Thomas Welch, is an attorney who used to represent Nestle; he is considering recusing himself — which would render the PUC unable to approve the deal.
Friday’s event, called “45 Years of No,” in reference to the projected duration of the deal, will have large and small stencils of the word “NO,” decorated by various artists, and blank ones to be filled in by visitors to the show. Various art supplies will be available for use; guest speakers will address issues related to the topic of water rights, and other activists will be in attendance to answer questions from the public.
The show, including the audience-participation elements, will be up through September, after which it will go on the road, taking the big and small “NO” artwork to the State House in Augusta, as well as Nestle’s Maine headquarters in Poland, and the town of Fryeburg.
A special element of the road show will be what organizer William Hessian calls “a human gallery” — all the artists, professional and amateur, will be invited to attend the exhibitions and stand with their artwork, to show not just their opinion of the deal, but their faces.
‘45 YEARS OF NO’ | September 6 @ 5-9 pm | Meg Perry Center, 544 Congress St, Portland |