Long-term water contract raises concerns

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

FRYEBURG — A long-term agreement between two business partners brings forth stabililty.

The Fryeburg Water Company and Nestlé Water North America hope to extend their partnership for the next 25 years if a new agreement passes Maine Public Utilities Commission muster.

Each side claims the new pact puts their business in a more stable position.

Fryeburg Water Company would benefit by gaining a fixed monthly rental fee for its pumping station off Route 113.

Jean Andrews, vice president of Fryeburg Water Company, says the proposed agreement would eliminate the current “guesswork” as to the amount of water Nestlé extracts and the amount paid. The new pact calls for Nestlé to extract a minimum of 75 million gallons per year and the water bottler will pay a monthly rental fee of $12,000. A new rate could be adjusted every five years.

Water extraction has declined in recent years. In 2006, Nestlé purchased 178 million gallons of water, but that figure dropped off to 86 million in 2009 and 73 million a year ago. Andrews cited weather conditions and a bad economy as possible reasons for the drop-off.

Andrews said the new agreement would bring greater financial stability to the water company, which should benefit local customers in terms of fewer rate adjustments. The fixed fee would also allow the water company to address infrastructure needs in a more timely fashion.

Nestlé, on the other hand, wants a long-term deal, moving the current pact from a five-year to a 25-year agreement. There is an option to extend the agreement for up to four additional five-year terms.

One caveat of the new agreement has some people like Nickie Sekera and Bill Harriman concerned. The proposed agreement calls for Well 1 to be dedicated to the “exclusive use” by Nestlé, although the Fryeburg Water Company would retain the right to suspend use of Well 1 to supply the water needs of its main service customers in case of emergency.

Nestlé would assume all expenses to seek an additional water source for use by Fryeburg Water Company and its customers. All of Fryeburg Water Company’s existing wells are within a single watershed (Ward’s Brook).

According to the agreement, “A new water source outside of this watershed would reduce the risk of source impact and provide an additional source of water supply.”

A June 2005 Comprehensive Facilities Plan, prepared by Weston & Sampson Engineers Inc. of Portland recommended this action.

Andrews said Well 1 is presently used by Nestlé, while Well 2 and Well 3 services over 800 water company customers.

“There has been some exploration, but nothing specific at this time,” Andrews said.

Sekera is concerned about a possible change in water source.

“I have a real concern that we would have to have our own drinking water come from a different area because it has been all sold off for the profit of a few people,” she said. “I don’t believe sustainability and concern for future resource security in our community is a central issue.”

She added, “As a mother of a young boy, to think of a future without Maine’s legacy and access to this most critical, life-giving resource evokes visions akin to nightmare.”

Harriman, who has taken the water company and town of Fryeburg to task over water quality monitoring over the years, feels Nestlé should be seeking an alternate source for its supply, and leave the present aquifer for local customers.

Andrews pointed out that a new water source would fall under the same strict state guidelines as the present facility, thus ensuring customers they will continue to receive safe and quality drinking water.

Watch group chimes in

The proposed agreement has also caught the eye of a state watch group.

Nisha Swinton, Regional Organizer of Food & Water Watch, issued a statement last week regarding the proposal between Fryeburg Water Company and Nestlé.

“We have deep concerns with the new lease between Nestlé’s Poland Spring and the Fryeburg Water Company, which grants the multi-national water bottler unfettered access to much of the town’s drinking water for decades to come,” Swinton wrote. “Food & Water Watch rejects and opposes the suggestion that this new lease is simply an amendment to the existing agreement, and strongly encourages the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to reject the new lease.  If the PUC truly takes a hard look at all the terms of this new lease and fully and fairly assess its impacts on the community of Fryeburg and its groundwater, there is no other conclusion that can arise.”

Swinton continued, “Perhaps most troubling is that the lease prioritizes Nestlé’s water needs over the town’s, giving the company access to groundwater even should supplies dwindle. Moreover, this will be the first time that Nestlé has obtained a 25-year contract with the company. Typically, contracts run five years at a time.

Swinton questioned the short time frame the Maine PUC has given the public to weigh in on the proposal. Public comment ends Sept. 4. News of the agreement was released by the state early last week. The News received a copy of the proposal late Wednesday, after the paper went to press.

“Unfortunately, it seems that the PUC is determined to fast track this proposal without ample time and opportunity for public comment and participation. We denounce the timeline of the comment period, which is only two weeks long, and during the peak vacation time encompassing the Labor Day holiday weekend,” Swinton said. “Rather than attempting to throttle public participation, we ask the PUC to extend the comment period to 60 days, and ask that they hold a formal public hearing in Fryeburg to facilitate public participation. We also ask that two of the three PUC commissioners excuse themselves from any decision-making regarding this lease due to their past employment by Nestlé and Poland Spring that creates a tremendous conflict of interest.”

Swinton said Food & Water Watch works to ensure the food, water and fish the public consumes is safe, accessible and sustainable.

 

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