Poland Spring is seeking a new site in western Maine for a $50 million water bottling plant and access to at least two additional springs that would boost the company’s production capacity by nearly 45 percent.

Poland Spring, part of Swiss conglomerate Nestle S.A., already operates three Maine bottling plants, in Poland, Kingfield and Hollis. The planned new water sources and bottling operation would increase the company’s production capacity from roughly 900 million gallons a year to 1.3 billion gallons. They also would create up to 80 new jobs in rural Maine, where pulp and paper mill closures have boosted unemployment and ravaged local economies.

“It’s kind of the whole western region of Maine that we’re looking at,” said Mark Dubois, geologist and natural resources manager for Poland Spring.

The bottling plant site would need to meet certain criteria, he said, such as relatively close access to a nearby “anchor spring” and more distant feeder springs from which 400 million gallons of fresh water could be extracted each year. The plant site would need to be relatively large – 60 to 120 acres – and have access to major transportation routes.

The most challenging part of the project will be finding adequate water resources to feed the plant, Dubois said. The process to identify and obtain legal rights to springs that meet the company’s intense year-round needs can take years, he said. Dubois estimated the plant would open sometime between 2020 and 2022.

JOBS BADLY NEEDED IN RURAL AREAS

The average wage paid by Poland Spring in Maine is $20 an hour. Dubois said wages at the new plant would be based on prevailing wages in the community in which it is located.

“For new factories, we do wage surveys in the area to make sure we’re competitive,” he said.

Work in western Maine paper mills has been rocky over the past two years. Paper makers, who typically earned in excess of $60,000 per year, saw about 500 jobs disappear when Verso Paper in Jay laid off workers in two waves as it navigated a bankruptcy. In Rumford, dozens of workers were laid off at the Catalyst paper mill in 2015 when a machine was shut down, but then rehired when the mill diversified its product line and restarted the idled machine.

Poland Spring is one of the top private employers in Maine. In 2016, its total employment surpassed 900 Mainers at its peak. Dubois said the company spent about $42 million on payroll in the state in 2016, and another $60 million on third-party vendors.

Poland Spring bottled water is incredibly popular in the Northeast and is the No. 1 brand of bottled spring water in terms of units shipped in the United States, although other brands not specifically labeled as spring water sell more volume.

FAST GROWTH, BUT PLENTY OF SUPPLY

The company has grown rapidly in the past decade, adding hundreds of jobs in Maine and gobbling up hundreds of millions of gallons of the state’s groundwater resources.

However, Dubois said it’s still a drop in the bucket compared with all of the fresh groundwater produced annually in Maine.

“We used 901.8 million gallons last year,” he said. “To put that in perspective for Maine, that’s less than the rainfall received on 900 acres in an average precipitation year in Maine. Maine has 19 million acres of land area. When you apply average (annual) rainfall to the state’s footprint, the Maine Geological Survey calculates that Maine receives 25 trillion gallons in total.”

CONCERNS ABOUT WATER RESOURCES

Still, the amount of water being sucked up by Poland Spring for bottling makes some Mainers uneasy. Fryeburg resident Nickie Sekera, who represents a grass-roots organization called Community Water Justice, said selling increasing amounts of water to Nestle places Maine’s most valuable natural resource on a slippery slope away from the residents who rely on it for drinking, farming and other uses.

“I understand the plight of Maine and our need for jobs – that’s very important,” Sekera said. “But I think taking the long view would be the best move for our water resources. I think we need to be preemptive in protecting the people of Maine.”

Poland Spring had operated in Fryeburg since 1997 under a contract with no time limits and no cap on the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the aquifer. A new contract that took effect last year has a term of up to 45 years, caps water withdrawals at 603,000 gallons per day and also provides the local water company with $12,000 a month from Nestle Waters of North America.

The contract sparked a lawsuit that made it to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled in favor of supplier Fryeburg Water Co. and Nestle.

Poland Spring also taps water sources in Poland, Hollis, Pierce Pond Township, Dallas Plantation, Kingfield and Denmark for its bottling operations.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:59 a.m. to clarify that the local water company receives $12,000 a month from Nestle Waters of North America.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jcraiganderson