Water contract concern: ’25 years too long’
By Wayne E. Rivet
FRYEBURG — With a strong voice and a firm hand gripping a piece of paper with his prepared comments on it, Luke Flanders made a plea to state officials to protect his community’s water.
“Please protect us,” the nine-year-old from Fryeburg said. “I am glad that I am allowed to speak now because I won’t get another chance by the time I am 54 years old.”
Standing before a packed house inside the American Legion Hall last Thursday night, Flanders pointed out to Maine Public Utilities Commissioners that the next time he might be able to speak on contract terms proposed by the Fryeburg Water Company and Nestlé, he could be a grandfather.
The two sides have proposed to enter into a 25-year agreement regarding the extraction of water for the Ward’s Brook aquifer that would also include five-year renewals to push the overall pact to 45 years.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission will hold a formal hearing on the proposal in Augusta on May 7, which will include some local “intervenors” such as Bill Harriman and Cliff Hall, who spoke briefly at last week’s hearing. Hall, a former selectmen, urged commissioners to “kill this proposal.” Harriman questioned past testing issues and the quality of water from Wells 2 and 3.
PUC Commissioner Tom Welch told the large gathering that a decision on the proposed contract will likely be made in July.
Welch noted that the “public witness hearing” had no time limit last Thursday night, but asked that Fryeburg residents be given first chance to testify before Welch and fellow PUC Commissioner David Littell.
Commissioner Mark Vannoy has recused himself from the review/decision-making process.
With some attendees standing outdoors and looking inside the hall through open windows, Dick Krasker, who is a member of the Fryeburg Water District, felt a 25-year agreement is “too long,” and would rather see a 10-year pact with 5-year renewals attached, but overall feels it is “a good deal.”
Krasker is hopeful that if a long-term deal can be reached between Fryeburg Water Company and Nestlé Waters, maybe the bottling giant might consider building a plant in Fryeburg. Bottling plants can run between $50 to $60 million investment, and add “good paying jobs” to the area. Another benefit, Krasker pointed out, would be the need to run 30 to 40 truck trips through Fryeburg and the region each day.
Krasker reminded residents that studies show the aquifer, which Fryeburg water is drawn, has a “daily sustainable flow of one million gallons per day.” He added the proposed agreement would create greater financial stability for the water company, which translates to continued low rates for local users.
Doug Bowen questioned whether commissioners could make an impartial decision, citing that each member has been connected to Nestlé in recent years, either providing legal counsel while working in the private sector or connected to a law firm that presently represents Nestlé and Poland Spring.
Commissioners Welch and Littell feel their respective ties, either past to present, to Nestlé will not pose a conflict. Bowen disagreed, feeling the ties are “so strong” that the commissioners are “unqualified to hear this case.” He asked Welch and Littell to look at both sides of the issue with “fresh eyes” before rendering their decision.
Along with copies of the proposed contract between Fryeburg Water Company and Nestlé Waters, Nickie Sekera and other supporters of protecting Fryeburg’s water supply handed out stickers that read, “It’s time to give Fryeburg’s water a second thought…Our water…Our choice.”
Sekera reminded commissioners that their responsibility is to “protect the public from harm.” She questioned whether a 45-year agreement is in the best interest of residents considering extreme climate changes and what those changes might mean to Fryeburg residents’ water supply.
“You embark on new waters with this contract,” Sekera said. “The burden of proof it won’t do harm falls on the PUC.”
The Maine Public Utilities Commission regulates electric, gas, telephone and water utilities “to ensure that Maine citizens have access to safe and reliable utility services at rates that are just and reasonable for all ratepayers,” according to the PUC’s mission statement.
While Kimberly Clark said Fryeburg is blessed to possess an abundance of high quality water and has a moral obligation to share it with others that may be lacking this vital product, Tracy Anderson of Wells sided with the argument that “water belongs to the people of Fryeburg” and not a multinational corporation.
“What is more important, money or people” she asked.
George Bishop of Fryeburg, a former representative, recommended that commissioners require a contract review in 10 years, and “if everything is satisfactory, it could and should be renewed.”
While water has been deemed plentiful in this region of the country, Arizona Zipper warned commissioners that as the world continues to change, so should their outlook when it comes to this precious resource — water.
“Sustainability is a dirty word you don’t have to consider, but you should,” he said. “Twenty-five years is too long. Forty years is too long.”
Virginia Woodwell spoke on behalf of a friend, who wrote a book regarding the water fight in the Newfield and Shapleigh area. She reminded the PUC that 16 towns in Maine and New Hampshire rejected water extraction proposals.
“Since water is essential for all forms of life, it should never be under the control of investor corporations,” she said. “Water is a vital resource and never should be under control of a profit-making entity.”
Debbie Lennon of Fryeburg, a farmer for the past 40 years, questioned how commissioners could determine the sustainability of the water supply over a 45-year period.
“Even 10 or five years, it’s basically fortune telling,” she said.
As Lennon left the podium and headed back to her seat in the jam-packed hall (some attendees listened to testimony from the kitchen area), she joked, “By the way, you’re all breathing my air. That’ll be $2 when you leave.”
Roger Wheeler of Fryeburg, who is a director of the Friends of Sebago Lake, has for decades actively researched the impacts of unnatural freshwater flows and Maine’s fish history. He opposes a 25-year contract.
“I believe that any multi-decade contract in Fryeburg and elsewhere that involves water extraction or altering natural flows should be of short duration,” he said. “We are learning that unnatural freshwater flows — and this includes extraction of water from a stream basin — have negative impacts that we could not have imagined one half dozen years ago.”
Wheeler closed his comments saying, “Uses of resources often change from necessity of economics and or for environmental reasons. Long-term contracts that limit corrective action are not in the best interest of present and future generations.”
Holly Foster of Fryeburg was also concerned about the 25-year length of the contract. She thought 10 or 15 years was a better mark, at which time it could be reviewed to be sure Nestlé had remained “good stewards of the water.”
Foster also commented on how Poland Spring drivers are respectful. One woman from the back of the room disagreed, at which time Commissioner Welch reminded attendees that since “testimony” was being given and recorded, outburst would not be tolerated.
A South Conway, N.H. man agreed with Foster. “I’ve flipped off a number of drivers and none have returned it yet,” he said.
Rick Eastman reminded attendees that Poland Spring’s investment in Fryeburg has kept water rates down and the company pays $56,000 in taxes. He has had conversations with folks in Kingfield regarding Poland Spring’s operation there.
“I’ve received a long list of accolades. They’re very happy,” he said. “Poland Spring has gone beyond what they promised to do. The mill rate in Kingfield dropped $4.”
With the economy still on rocky ground, Eastman is concerned if Fryeburg lost one of its two major employers what the effect would be on the local mill rate. Expansion of the water industry could be essential to the town’s economic growth, especially if a bottling plant were to be built here.
“It’s 10 trillion gallons of water we’re sitting on here,” he said. “We’re taking care of it.”