September 3, 2013

For regulators and Nestle Waters, conflict by the gallon

All three PUC commissioners and Maine's public advocate have ties to Poland Spring's parent company, which is seeking a 25-year contract.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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A Poland Spring truck heads south on Route 302. Fryeburg’s quality water is the result of quartz-rich geology and clean runoff.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Fryeburg residents Bruce Taylor, left, an intervenor in the case, stands with contract opponents Cliff Hall and Nickie Sekera in front of the Poland Spring offices on Main Street in Fryeburg.

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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.

"The commodification of water is an enormous problem, especially when you are creating new markets (for bottled water) in places where people already have potable water," said Nickie Sekera, a human rights activist who lives in Fryeburg and opposes the new contract. "If you look at what's happening on a global scale with droughts and population growth, I am hugely concerned about any long-term agreement. Anything over five years I think is grossly irresponsible and misguided."

TOO CHEAP A PRICE?

But the argument that appears to be getting the greatest traction in the PUC deliberations is that the Fryeburg Water Co. might be selling water to Nestle too cheaply. Until 2008, Nestle was willing to pay Pure Mountain Springs a price many times higher than the tariff rate, the argument goes, so it should continue to do so in the future.

"I'm not against profit, but this money here goes back to pay for infrastructure and to reducing rates for mainline ratepayers," said resident Bruce Taylor, who is an intervener in the case and has subpoenaed Nestle to reveal the rates it paid Pure Mountain Springs for water before it bought the entity in 2008. "I think it would be exceedingly helpful to commissioners so that they can make a wise and informed decision."

The deputy public advocate said his office is interested in the idea, and that under state law the water company could establish a higher tariff for large-volume consumer users. "It can be done, and it does not necessarily have to be done here" in the current proceedings, Black said. "You could change the tariff for commercial customers independently of this case, either because the PUC orders it or because Fryeburg Water Co. decided on its own to accept an ascending rate that would change the amount Nestle pays."

Fryeburg Water has not considered this option, Andrews said. "I know things have been suggested by other parties, but our rates are structured based on cost of service, so that is not something we have explored," she said.

Dubois said it was an "interesting concept" but noted that his company had to invest to buy Pure Mountain Springs, and in facilities and aquifer protection land in Fryeburg. "It's a little short-sighted in that the rate itself doesn't account for business principles in the return on investment and the like," he said.

He added that Nestle owns the pumping station and pipes at Fryeburg and uses untreated water, so Fryeburg Water Co.'s cost to deliver it is essentially free. "Our payments are free and clear to the company," Dubois said. "We don't want to be singled out. We want to be treated like any other customer."

FIXING A THORNY PROBLEM

If Tuesday's proceedings do wind up focusing on the Pure Mountain Springs era, Chairman Welch will likely be under additional pressure to recuse himself, as he worked closely with Nestle on related issues. He said he would make a decision whether to remove himself after the hearing. If he does leave, he said the PUC would be unable to approve the proposed contract for lack of a quorum.

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Additional Photos

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Poland Spring water trucks fill up at the water pumping station at Fire Lane No. 4 along Route 113 in Fryeburg.

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Wards Pond off Route 113 in Fryeburg is part of an aquifer where Poland Spring water trucks fill up and travel through Fryeburg.

 


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