John Dill calls them "whisper trucks," the twenty-five or so Poland Spring tanker trailers that pass daily through the western mountain village of Kingfield on their way to and from the company's well in nearby Pierce Pond Plantation. Unlike the logging and lime trucks that rumble, always too fast, Dill says, through the center of town, the Poland Spring trucks stop at the stop sign, follow the speed limit, and rarely use their engine brakes. Dill, who is Kingfield's first selectman and the Kingfield Water District's treasurer, would like to hear a lot more of them.They whisper hopes of jobs, prosperity, and better times in economically depressed Franklin County.
Poland Spring, bottler of the nation's third-best-selling brand of water, has zeroed in on Kingfield as a location for its third Maine bottling plant. It would offer sixty jobs at startup and could grow to 250 employees. Kingfield's aquifer has "wonderful water," says Dill, who is satisfied there is more than enough to meet the town's and Poland Spring's needs. "It's going to be a great thing for the town of Kingfield," he says. "It's going to bring in new energy. It will stabilize our school population. We have a lot of underemployed. People are waiting tables. If it gave someone a good job with benefits, he could have better health care, a little better car, a little better diet."
Forty miles away in Rangeley, the very idea of Poland Spring trucks screams big problems to Selectman Rob Welch. Poland Spring wants to withdraw 184-million gallons of water a year in nearby Dallas Plantation; Maine's Land Use Regulation Commission approved the application in March, meaning as many as a hundred tankers a day could be driving through downtown Rangeley in summer — peak season for a tiny lakeside community almost entirely dependent on tourism. "These are state roads, for sure, and everybody has a right to drive on them, but they also are part of our recreation," says Welch, an innkeeper whose guests always ask about "moosing." "People drive on those roads very slowly looking for moose. They stop in the middle of the road! You could easily have three, four, five cars stopped, looking at the same moose."
One county, two towns. Two views of what an industry could mean. Sounds like the sort of responses one would expect when any large enterprise threatens to change the neighborhood. But it's not that simple. Rarely has a company's growth been met with the high anxiety that has accompanied Poland Spring's reach into western Maine. "We're not dealing with some little homegrown industry," Welch says of Poland Spring, whose parent company is Swiss food giant Nestlé. "Their loyalty is to their stockholders. They are going to tie up and control as many aquifers as they can. Water is a huge issue, not just to our little community and our little aquifer. One hundred years from now, water will be more valuable than oil, and companies are staging themselves all over the world to control it."
Welch echoes the message of H20 for ME, a grassroots campaign to make commercial water bottlers pay for Maine groundwater. The group made national news this winter when it petitioned for a vote on a bottled water tax. The petition drive failed, but H20 for ME leader Jim Wilfong has vowed to pursue the effort, which is aimed at strengthening state oversight of groundwater withdrawals. Maine has many laws governing the withdrawal of surface water, such as rivers and lakes, which are considered state property. However, groundwater is largely treated as the property of the well owner.
Now several western Maine towns have imposed moratoriums on large water withdrawals as they draft ordinances to ensure the sustainability of their aquifers. At times, the debates have been ugly. In Fryeburg, where Poland Spring has taken the local Board of Appeals to court for overturning a truck-loading station permit, some speculate that the "long tentacles" of Nestlé have reached into town boards and influenced decisions. In Kingfield, people complain of hidden agendas and call Poland Spring's $10,000 gift to the town a bribe.
Some blame the tension on Poland Spring itself — for putting hundreds of trucks on rural roads and for profiting from the same water that flows into their sinks. ("Forget the jobs, forget the trucks," one Kingfield man says. "I just don't want them taking our water.") Others blame H20 for ME, with its alarming vision of a not-too-distant future in which billions of gallons of groundwater are shipped out of state in railroad tankers. Whatever its root, the charged atmosphere has sharpened what would already be hot-button issues about jobs, growth, and notions of what life in Maine should be.
Sheryl Welsh was one of 2,500 people who applied for the first seventy-five jobs at Poland Spring's Hollis bottling plant six years ago. "At the time I was working as a temp in Portland, which is quite a distance," Welsh says. "I had four young children, and I hated to be away." Hollis is only fifteen minutes from Welsh's Limington home, but that was not the only appeal. The Welshes had gone for years without health insurance; Poland Spring offered it, and profit-sharing and 401(k) plans, too. "None of my past jobs offered much in the way of benefits," Welsh explains. "I even have a savings account now." Welsh enjoys the plant's emphasis on teamwork and the way it breaks down barriers between management and staff. "It's nice to feel like an equal. In all the other jobs I've been in, I was just a worker."
"I understand that people are concerned about profits going overseas, but it's a whole new world," Welsh says. "I've seen neighbors lose jobs when companies went overseas. Here is a company that has come in. To me, it's a Maine company. It's Maine people. It's Maine water."
For years Poland Spring has been appreciated as a clean industry that relies on a renewable resource, provides good-paying jobs in rural areas, and gives generously to local causes. Governor John Baldacci has equated the company with L.L. Bean for the way it promotes Maine as a symbol of quality.
History is part of the cachet. In the mid-1800s, Hiram Ricker, convinced of his spring's healing qualities, opened a magnificent summer hotel in Poland. Wealthy rusticators relaxed in a marble spring house where they were ladled water direct from "The Source." In the adjacent bottling plant, twenty-five workers filled one thousand bottles an hour in a room with Carrara glass walls and ceilings.
Poland Spring had thirty employees and was nearly bankrupt when it was purchased in 1980 by Perrier, which in turn was purchased by Nestlé in 1992. Today it has 689 employees and a payroll of $45.9 million (average wage: seventeen dollars an hour). Plants in Poland and Hollis are light-years from the Victorian charm of the original (restored as a museum in the hundred-acre Poland Spring Preservation Park), but mesmerizing in their own peculiar high-tech fashion. The Hollis plant sprawls across thirty-one acres. Set in the middle of an undeveloped, largely treeless, 1,430-acre former potato farm, it seems to rise out of nothing. Pitch pine seedlings, part of a six-hundred-acre reforestation project, poke through the windswept grass.
Inside is a bizarre amusement park of conveyor belts rising from one monstrous whirling machine and dropping to another. An injection molder resembling a giant waffle iron dips, pushes, and turns in rapid rhythm, churning out finger-sized tubes that will soon become bottles. Suspended by their necks from a narrow rail, bottles zip through the air on the way to a filler that dispenses enough water to fill 1,100 bottles a minute.
Soon Poland Spring's two plants will not be able to meet projected customer demand. "We have limits to what we can take from sources on a sustainable level," says Tom Brennan, Poland Spring's natural resources manager. "We've followed a very methodical process to identify different sources to support our plants and to identify a location for a third. We are guided by geology and water, but also roads, power, and infrastructure.
The transportation penalty to move our product to market is significant, and the profit margins are very thin."
The company, which draws 500 million gallons of water a year, is already supplementing its plant-based springs from two satellite pumping stations, one east of Kingfield in Pierce Pond Township, the other near Skowhegan in St. Albans. It also purchases eighty million gallons of water a year from a company in Fryeburg, which not coincidentally is ground zero for H20 for ME.
On January 24, 2004, a Fryeburg Water Company pump failed, causing a drop in water pressure for 750 customers in Fryeburg and neighboring East Conway, New Hampshire. Already fed up with rusty, smelly water that sporadically flowed from their taps, the private utility's customers seethed under a drinking-water boil order for four days. "At the same time, Poland Spring trucks were running out of town with Fryeburg Water Company water in them," says Hannah Warren, a nonvoting member of the Fryeburg Planning Board who is frequently at odds with her colleagues on water matters. "People were incensed."
The day after the boil order was lifted, Poland Spring representatives convened a public meeting at Fryeburg's middle school to discuss the possibility of building a bottling plant there. Warren began running numbers and researching — what would be the impact on traffic, on the historic district, the cost to the community. She sought advice from Jim Wilfong, a former state legislator from Stowe and a teacher at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Maine.
"I began digging into it, and the whole thing made me nervous," Wilfong says, citing the scarcity of water in the western United States and many parts of the world. "I see this huge demand for water. It's not going to be bottling companies like Nestlé. It's going to be railroad tanker trains of water. It's going to be pipelines. It could be shiploads. I don't know when it's going to happen, but it will, and our state laws are horrendous." Maine uses the absolute dominion rule, which provides that a landowner owns the groundwater under his land and can use as much as he wants. "You could pump the aquifer dry," Wilfong contends. "I'm not saying that's something a company like Nestlé would do, but it's an option."
In fact, three regulations come into play any time ground or surface water is transported, according to State Geologist Robert Marvinney. The Department of Health and Human Services, which regulates withdrawals for public consumption, must ensure that local needs are not compromised. Two other agencies, the Maine Geological Service and the Department of Environmental Protection, examine impacts on the aquifer and surrounding habitat. In addition, the Land Use Regulation Commission reviews withdrawals in townships, plantations, and unorganized areas. H20 for ME, however, cautions that oversight is largely dependent on the permit holder's own reporting.
Wilfong contends that Mainers have spent billions of dollars protecting the state's abundant water, and they should be rewarded for it. H20 for ME, which originally sought a twenty-cent tax on each gallon of bottled water extracted here, is now pursuing legislation that would codify Maine citizens as owners of the groundwater and give them the right to sell it through a bidding process. Revenues would be used to fund an agency to regulate withdrawals. Remaining funds would be paid as dividends to taxpayers.
Had the tax effort succeeded, it likely would have meant the end of the Poland Spring brand, says Kim Jeffery, CEO of Nestlé Waters North America, based in Connecticut. The tax would have amounted to about sixty cents on each case of twenty-four half-liter bottles of Poland Spring, which Jeffery says is more than Nestlé Waters' profit. "We have invested $200 million in Hollis. We have as big a stake in sustainability as anyone else. Those plants don't come on wheels. If the wells dry up, we can't just move. We have a long, long track record of being regulated and closely monitored by the state. We didn't just step in yesterday."
Tom Brennan, the natural resource manager, bristles at H20 for ME's portrayal of the industry: "I've been a hydrogeologist in Maine for eighteen years. I've worked for paper mills. I've worked for municipal water systems. I've worked for a variety of different water withdrawers, and I've never seen anyone held to the standards Poland Spring is, and our internal standards are higher than any external regulations. This is our lifeblood. We can't compromise it. One line given during the petition drive focused on our abuse of the resource and how we ignored the regulations. That's my job, damn it. If it's not being done, it's because I'm not doing it, but it's my job, and I can tell you that for damn sure we're doing it."
In the meantime, a working group convened by Baldacci, an opponent of a bottled water tax, is reviewing state regulations to identify gaps. Maine receives an incredible twenty-four trillion gallons of rainfall every year. Carefully managed, State Geologist Marvinney says, the groundwater supply is more than adequate to meet the demands of municipalities, private well owners, and large commercial users like water bottlers, irrigators, and ski areas. Nevertheless, he is sensitive to the concerns rippling across western Maine. "Many people's perception of aquifers and groundwater is driven by the model for the western United States," he says. "The water problems there are highly publicized and everyone has heard about them, but the situation is very different here."
In Franklin County, the prospect of a Kingfield bottling plant has exposed a gulf in the priorities of working-class natives and those of retirees and white-collar baby boomers winding down their careers in the mountains. Among the leading opponents is real estate broker Susan Mason. She regularly e-mails information about water issues to fellow opponents and trades information with a source in Fryeburg. Last fall she invited twenty guests to her home to meet Jim Wilfong.
Mason admits she is an unlikely activist. Since moving to Kingfield in 1970 to direct condominium development at nearby Sugarloaf Ski Resort, she has shied away from town affairs. But Mason believes a bottling plant is incompatible with Kingfield's "Victorian village," and she worries that Poland Spring will demolish historic buildings that sit on properties it has optioned. She wants a moratorium that will allow the town to contract an aquifer study and examine other impacts, including the plant's likely location on a 149-acre parcel abutting Kingfield Elementary School. "When is a good neighbor not a good neighbor?" says Mason, who is frustrated that parents seem unconcerned. "If the parents of those three hundred kids knew that those diesel fumes could give them lung cancer! Who are these people? Why don't they care about their kids? One parent asked me, 'Why do you care? You don't have kids.' I said, 'Because they are my future, but I am their future right now.' "
Some fear Kingfield is outmatched when it comes to negotiating with a behemoth like Nestlé. "It's this huge corporation and this tiny little innocent town of one thousand people," says Susan Davis, director of the Stanley Museum in Kingfield. "We're talking about a pea and a giant. And I can't stand the concept that they'll be generous. I'm in the charity business. Don't ever mistake charity for fees. You will never get in charity what you deserve in fees."
"There is something very upsetting about a foreign-based multinational corporation coming into town and dictating where an industrial park is going to be located," agrees Lisa Standish, who worked in economic development in Massachusetts before moving to Kingfield two years ago. Her inn on a pastoral stretch of Route 27 is not far from where Poland Spring's driveway might be. "People have blinders on about jobs, when there are other things — quality of life, the mountain air, the sky so clear and full of stars. If you told me they were creating an employee stock ownership program, then I would say great, but Nestlé will never do anything like that. That is not in their political history. What are they offering — fifteen dollars and benefits? To do what? Put on a sterile suit every day and watch bottles float by?"
But the politics of corporate-driven globalization don't resonate far here. Franklin County has lost more than a thousand jobs since 1998 with the closings of shoe and wood-product manufacturers and the streamlining of the paper industry workforce. More than 14 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. "We've got great people here who will provide the products and services Poland Spring needs," says Lynn Herrick, owner of the Herbert Hotel, which was the lodging of choice for well drillers, hydrologists, surveyors, and others working on the Pierce Pond pumping station. Their business over the past three years "sort of kept us alive," Herrick says, and he expects the ripple effect would be even better with a plant in town. "The biggest employer around here is Sugarloaf. Poland Spring will be year-round, and it's indoors and warm, not outside shoveling snow or loading ski lifts."
Quenten Clark, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District #58 (Kingfield, Phillips, Eustis, Avon, and Strong), worries about the children in his charge. "I've got one thousand kids in my school system and five hundred of them live in poverty," he says. "A lot of people in this area have a significant amount of money, but our families are not doing well. A lot of bad things happen when a family doesn't have enough money to support itself. We need money for the tax base so we can afford to run the schools. We need jobs so our kids' families are adequately supported. And we need places where our young people can work. Yes, there are a lot of issues, but Poland Spring comes out on the better side of most of them."
The landscape is different in Rangeley, however. Unlike Kingfield, Rangeley is a four-season resort town. Seasonal lakeside homes mean the school system is well-funded and enrollment is low. The Board of Selectmen, the Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce, and Rangeley Crossroads Coalition, a citizens group, are united in their opposition to the proposed Dallas Plantation pumping station. "Tourism is our lifeblood," says Cathryn Thorup, a coalition member who lives in Sandy River Plantation. "This project jeopardizes one of the prime drivers of the economy in western Maine."
Poland Spring dropped Fryeburg from its list of potential plant sites last summer after an aquifer study revealed that the town had already committed more water to commercial uses than could be sustained. (The permitted users are Pure Mountain Springs, which sells to Poland Spring, and WE Corporation, which has not started pumping.) In neighboring Denmark, First Selectman Ralph Sarty took one look at the brouhaha next door and decided to get ahead of the storm. Rumor had it Poland Spring was interested in opening a borehole in his town.
Sarty and his fellow selectmen spent a year and a half working on an ordinance addressing large-scale commercial extractions. They were guided by an obscure state law that allows a board of selectmen to pass a regulation protecting groundwater within a municipality for one year, after which a town vote is required to make it binding. Possibly the most comprehensive in the state, the ordinance establishes a strict monitoring program overseen by an independent hydrologist. When Poland Spring did apply for a permit, it was asked to maintain a balance in a special fund, from which the selectmen draw money for related expenses. "We have full control over all legal expenses and expert advice, with no permission required from them," Sarty says. "We have never asked Nestlé for a dime except for the fees — not that we aren't going to negotiate for some benefits in the long run." The selectmen made it clear that Poland Spring was not to use town roads, so the company has agreed to pipe water two miles to a loading facility on Route 302 in Fryeburg — that's the loading facility that is the subject of a lawsuit there.
Sarty does not believe existing state safeguards are enough, nor does he believe a new state entity — H20 for ME's proposal — is the answer. "The state needs to establish guidelines to help towns through this because this has been a struggle — and an unfair struggle," he says. "But I strongly feel the local authority should be the governing authority, and if there are any benefits to be had, they should go there. They, more than anyone, are affected."
Mainers will embrace Poland Spring if they are shown that its activities won't endanger the water supply, Sarty believes, and Denmark's approach is one way to have that security. "The level of cooperation we've gotten from the people at Nestlé Poland Spring has been excellent," he adds, "but I never lose sight of that fact that we're dealing with a big, multibillion-dollar corporation. I always say Nestlé Poland Spring. It's Nestlé. Poland Spring is a sticker on a bottle."