EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on Maine water. Read part 2: A thirst for raw water from Maine

Sometime in the next couple of months, when America is at its hottest, bottled water is expected to become the most popular beverage sold in America. Not in dollar value, but in terms of volume and consumption. It will finally surpass carbonated beverages in this category, representing a triumph of healthy H20 over the big bad bubbles of sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Bottles of Poland Spring water Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Bottles of Poland Spring water at the company’s processing plant in Hollis. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Passing this sales landmark also represents a triumph of marketing, as bottled water is merely a different version of something that every American connected to a municipal water system already gets for free. To drive home the point, imagine that milk flows from the tap in your home. It varies in quality depending on where you live, but nonetheless, it is free, or part of the same municipal service you pay to flush the toilet or shower. Yet you willingly pay for another kind of milk, especially if it is either organic or just sold in a bottle appealing enough to somehow make it seem special. Sometimes you even walk out your door, away from the tap where you could fill a glass with nice cold milk to drink, and within minutes, stop at a store to buy a bottled version of that milk.

Maine is a water-rich state, loaded with sand and gravel aquifers that provide a natural filter. From them, water can bubble up to the surface in springs, locations that Native American tribes knew well and early European settlers happily embraced and sometimes exploited. There are doubtless secret springs we haven’t even found yet, bubbling away in Maine’s undeveloped, rarely visited lands.

Because of this, Maine has long been a place that others considered a perfect source for good-tasting, “fresh” drinking water. The state is also home to a remarkably successful brand of bottled water, Poland Spring. With a distribution arm that reaches throughout the Northeast, Poland Spring, which is owned by the Nestle Corporation, is now the No. 1 selling brand of bottled water in the nation.

As what Poland Spring calls “the 100 days of summer,”

i.e. its boom sale days, commence, Source reports on the homegrown bottled water industry through the lens of sustainability. This week we look at the ever expanding Poland Spring, its efforts to run a sustainable business and its critics. Next week we look at a fledgling boutique water company hidden away on a hill in western Maine.

800 MILLION GALLONS

In 2015, Maine lobstermen and women pulled 121.1 million pounds of lobster from the ocean while farmers dug 1.6 billion pounds of potatoes from the earth. Meanwhile, Poland Spring bottled about 800 million gallons of water – the equivalent of some 6.7 billion pounds – taken from Maine aquifers.

Packaged bottles of Poland Spring water on a conveyor belt in the Hollis plant Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Poland Spring, which is owned by the Nestle Corporation, is the No. 1 selling brand of bottled water in the nation. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Clear, calorie-free and for all but the most discerning water palates, flavorless, water is the state’s biggest consumable product by volume. Yet it doesn’t get nearly the attention of lobster, potatoes or wild blueberries (104.4 million pounds in 2014, the most recent year crop figures are available for) as a product sourced in Maine.

But Poland Spring water is ubiquitous throughout the Northeast, so much so that its UPC code is the No. 1 scanned item in New York City. “It surpassed cigarettes,” said Heather Printup, community relations manager for Poland Spring Bottling.

As a subsidiary of Nestle, Poland Spring’s geographic reach extends to Pennsylvania, where another label, Deer Park, also fills bottles for Nestle. But because Poland Spring has a certain cachet, it sometimes shows up at retailers willing to pay more to ship it farther, to Florida, California or even farther. “I found it in Mexico,” Printup said during a recent press tour of the Poland Spring Museum.

Her pride in Poland Spring is evident. “To be part of an industry that has been around for so long resonates so deep,” Printup said, standing in the museum, a former bottling factory. She’d just opened the door of a glistening all-white bathroom to show off the original glass tiles Nestle salvaged during a $3 million restoration of both the Italianate spring house and the old factory. “We have employees that actually worked in this factory.”

Printup came to work at Poland Spring in 2001 fresh out of college and her knowledge of the tumultuous history of the original spring, which was first commercialized in 1859, is as impressive as her dedication to what the company is today: three bottling facilities, 860 employees and plans to expand, finding even more Maine water that suits the Poland Spring profile of fresh water drawn from sand and gravel aquifers.

“We need that same composition under the ground,” she said. “We’re selective about where we go and we want to stay in the state. We’re constantly out looking for new spring sites.”

The likely location of Poland Spring’s next expansion is in the Rumford area. If Poland Spring, which is Maine’s 49th largest employer, finds suitable springs there, it would tap into the springs via wells as it already does in locations in Fryeburg, Poland, Denmark, Dallas Plantation, Pierce Pond Township and St. Albans. Long gone are the days when the spring water flowed, simply via gravity, directly into a bottling plant.

As a traditional mill town, Printup notes, Rumford has faced considerable job losses (the unemployment rate there in 2015 was nearly twice that of the state overall).

“That would be a good story for us,” Printup said.

WELL WISHERS (OR NOT)

In the bottled water business, good stories and good public relations are a particular necessity. No sooner did the Nestle subsidiary make public its interest in Rumford’s water than questions arose from a citizenry already concerned with just how much Maine water goes into Poland Spring bottles. This Tuesday, a group of activists will host a free 6 p.m. screening at the Rumford Public Library of “Tapped,” a 2009 documentary about the bottled water industry, focusing on PepsiCo and Nestle.

A forklift operator moves bottles of water at the Poland Spring facility in Hollis on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A forklift operator moves bottles of water at the Poland Spring facility in Hollis. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Tapped” features footage from Fryeburg, where Poland Spring began tapping into water supplies in 1997, much to the dismay of some residents, Nisha Swinton, a senior organizer for Food and Water Watch who is based in Portland, will be on the educational panel that follows the movie. She’s well used to going up against Nestle and Poland Spring; Food and Water Watch’s appeal to limit Poland Spring’s long-term rights to pump water in Fryeburg, which extend 45 years, was shot down by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in May. For Swinton, her opposition to the bottled water industry as a whole is firmly rooted in issues of sustainability. There’s the oil and energy required to produce bottled water – 2,000 times the energy cost of producing tap water – then the problem of dealing with all those plastic bottles in the waste stream. According to Food and Water Waste research, about 75 percent of empty plastic water bottles in the U.S. end up in the garbage instead of a recycling bin. (For the one-quarter that do make it in the recycling bin, energy will be required to turn them into something useful.)

But Food and Water Watch has one sustainability concern that doesn’t involve a statistic, mainly because no statistics are available. What happens to the environment when a company extracts water from an aquifer at such enormous levels? Gary Hemphill, managing director of research for the industry consultant, the Beverage Marketing Corporation, said the bottled water industry produces “north of 11 billion gallons” in the United States alone. That’s a lot of water being moved around.

“One point I always like to make is that when bottled water companies are tapping into water supplies, they are not replenishing what they pump out,” said Alison Grass, senior researcher for Food and Water Watch’s water program. “They are just taking it and putting in a plastic bottle and selling it. That differentiates it from something like agricultural use,” which ultimately recharges the system.

Maine is a wet place, this year’s dry spring notwithstanding. Rainfall totals for Maine in 2015 were 43.23 inches, nearly 10 inches more than the national average in a particularly wet year. Food and Water Watch’s Swinton doesn’t deny that. “The whole Northeast is very water rich,” she said. But she’d still like to know the larger environmental and ecological implications of taking far more water from the ground than any previous generation did. “I personally would love just an in-depth, independent study done that is monitoring our groundwater resources,” she said.

She and others also see Maine as particularly vulnerable to those who want to exploit that richness. The law around extracting groundwater in Maine is one of absolute dominion, which means that landowners are entitled to extract as much water as they please from their property.

“Absolute dominion means I can own a quarter block somewhere and as long as I have the biggest straw, extract as much as I want from under it,” Swinton said. As groundwater demands increased in the latter part of the 20th century, the absolute dominion doctrine went out of favor and many states moved to placing groundwater under the same form of protections that surface waters are held under, or a modified form of absolute dominion that allowed for “reasonable” use. While Maine maintains the absolute dominion doctrine, the “absolute” is not truly absolute in that groundwater is subject to regulation by the state in order to protect public safety, health and welfare. The state Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, sets limits on how much Poland Spring can extract from the aquifers it pumps from.

But from Swinton’s perspective, Nestle, via Poland Spring, has the biggest straws in Maine and doesn’t have to be accountable to its neighbors.

BAMBI’S WATERING HOLE

Mark LaPlante, Poland Spring’s natural resources manager, is a hearty, outdoorsy guy with a ready smile and a warm, friendly manner. He drives a big red truck, offers a big hand to shake and produces an icy cold bottle of Poland Spring water within seconds of meeting you. But he looks truly anguished when the topic of sustainability comes up.

Bottles of Poland Spring water stacked up at the Hollis facility Tuesday Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Ricker family controlled Poland Spring until the 1940s, when it began going through a series of owners. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I take it personally when I hear we’re not sustainable,” LaPlante said. “Maine is my home.”

He said this as he stood about three feet away from the best visual attached to the company’s water source in Hollis, the Shy Beaver Trout Hatchery, where wooden walls set into wetlands create a sort of long, narrow, spring-fed swimming pool. The hatchery long predates Poland Spring. In fact, its original hatchery building is on Hollis’ listings of “Historic Public Buildings,” and it continues to operate even as wells around it extract 237 million gallons of water from the aquifer annually.

The banks around that hatchery are green and lush and if Bambi stepped out of the forest for a drink, he’d look perfectly at home. LaPlante has seen plenty of wildlife around: bear, deer, owls, porcupines. “You name it,” he said. (And ticks; the one element of his job he doesn’t like.) The buildings that house the wells and controls would not look out of place in a national park; they’re tasteful and almost sweet from the outside, like cottages built for fairy creatures, although the interiors are lined with machinery, control panels and high-tech security equipment.

But just down the dirt road LaPlante drove in on, and across Killick Pond Road, is Poland Spring’s Hollis bottling plant, one of three it maintains in the state. It’s the biggest bottled water facility in North America and the second biggest in the world. The parking lot is so vast tanker trucks look small in it, and even on a Saturday, it’s lined with cars. In the 100 days of summer, bottled water moves quickly from ground to grocery shelves. It’s filtered and hit with a UV treatment in the factory to make sure no bacteria gets through, but otherwise unchanged, according to Poland Spring.

“You could get a bottle of Poland Spring that is 24 to 48 hours out of the ground,” LaPlante said.

LaPlante started at Poland Spring in 2000, as the Hollis site was coming on line, a process he said takes three or four years, and in the days since then he’s never once got the word from the Department of Environmental Protection to back off on pumping; water levels have not dropped to the point that would warrant that. “It’s critical to our business that we maintain spring flow,” LaPlante said.

One of his first jobs at Poland Spring was as the official well wisher for neighbors of the vast Hollis project, visiting seven or eight of them once a month to check on their wells for any impact from the Poland Spring operation. (Because wells pull water in, there can be legitimate concerns that a big straw in the collective glass might alter what comes up in a smaller straw nearby.) He said no problems were detected. “After a few years they said, ‘We really don’t need to see you every month, Mark,’ ” LaPlante said.

THE RICKERS OF POLAND, MAINE

You could see why Poland Spring managers would be sensitive about public relations. In her 2008 book, “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It,” author Elizabeth Royte opens with a scene in Hollis and then drops into Fryeburg. Royte refers to Poland Spring as a water “Juggernaut,” a term few outside of Trump Enterprises would welcome (you can still find Nestle’s rebuttal to her book on the company’s website). And she asks if it is even ethical to be selling water in the first place.

Which brings us back to the origins of bottled water sales in Maine.

The Ricker family settled in the Poland area in 1794, acquiring the hilltop farm where the original Poland Spring bubbled up in a land swap with the Shakers. It took two generations and one bad stomach to discover the spring water; Hiram Ricker noticed his farmhands disappearing into the woods for drinks, tried the water himself and believed himself cured of his acid reflux. By 1859 he began selling it commercially as a health tonic. Printup listed off some of the more outlandish claims made about the water – including a disabled person being able to walk again – in the indulgent tone one uses with small children telling tall tales. Certainly the water didn’t hurt anyone.

“Nowadays if we go to the doctor they always say drink a lot of fluids,” Printup pointed out.

Poland Spring had its own train cars in those days, a move the modern-day version of Poland Spring is now mimicking as a means to lower its carbon footprint, although currently only in small increments and on the weekends. “Ideally, we’ll get up to taking 5,000 truckloads off the road,” she said.

The Rickers controlled Poland Spring until the 1940s, when it began going through a series of owners. It was in bankruptcy when it was purchased by Perrier in 1980 (Perrier was subsequently bought by Nestle). It wasn’t until 1998 that the bottled water craze really took off, Printup said, sending Poland Spring’s sales went through the roof.

“We couldn’t even keep up,” Printup said.

The very next year, 1999, Natural Resources Defense Council came out with a study about the merits and safety of bottled water. It found no assurance that bottled water is cleaner or safer than tap, and that an estimated 25 percent of bottled water is merely tap water in a bottle, albeit sometimes further treated. The study was such a “massive undertaking,” according to the council’s health program’s senior attorney Mae Wu, that the environmental group hasn’t updated it.

“But bottled water is still fundamentally taking water out of one place and putting it another,” Wu said, with all the resulting environmental impacts of packing and transport. “Meanwhile, water that comes out of the tap is pennies on the dollar. Fundamentally, things don’t change on that level.”

But what about the disastrous lead contamination of the municipal water in Flint, Michigan, a scandal so terrifying that one has to wonder whether it may be at least partially responsible for driving bottled water sales over the carbonated beverages mountain, as it were? And suggestions that Flint is just the beginning, since our water infrastructure is generally a disaster?

“Our infrastructure is falling apart,” Wu agreed. “We lose billions of gallons of water a day just from leaking pipes underground.”

But she argues that tap water is far more stringently independently tested than bottled, falling under the more comprehensive jurisdiction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whereas bottled water inspections are handled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are far more limited in scope.

Even the revelations of the Natural Resources Defense Council study didn’t damage water sales. Aside from a slight dip in 2008, likely as a result of the recession, Gary Hemphill, the research manager for the Beverage Marketing Corporation, said sales have climbed steadily.

The industry’s main customer purchases a single-serving bottle of water, he said, and demographically consumers skew slightly more female and also younger. Although not all bottled water has an affiliation with a spring (the marketplace is jam-packed with filtered, distilled and mineral water as well) source is key for consumers, Hemphill said. And for companies who want to do well in the business. It’s no surprise to him that Poland Spring is so successful.

“Ideally, you would like to choose a place that has an image of health and clean, outdoors living, that’s pristine,” Hemphill said. “I don’t have specific research, but I think intuitively Maine has that kind of image with a lot of people.”

But to skeptics, like Swinton of Food and Water Watch, bottled water remains “an amazing scheme.” Fryeburg resident Nickie Sekera of Community Water Justice, who will also be on that June 28 panel, says our “culture of convenience” has adapted to something that should be reserved for emergencies.

“What did we do for the first 100 million years anyway?” she added. Bottled water companies, she said, “have the best scam on the planet. Back when Hiram Ricker first started selling it, he was laughed at because people thought, who is going to buy bottled water?”