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Energy committee rejects water contract bill after Poland Spring lobbying effort

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Energy committee rejects water contract bill after Poland Spring lobbying effort

Nov 29, 2023 | 5:39 pm ET
By Evan Popp
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Energy committee rejects water contract bill after Poland Spring lobbying effort
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Activists with Community Water Justice, a group in Maine opposed to the privatization of water. (Community Water Justice/Facebook)

A legislative committee on Wednesday voted against a bill opposed by Poland Spring that would limit the contract length bottled water companies can sign with municipal utilities — dealing a blow to the measure’s chances of passing.

The vote in the Energy, Utilities and Technology (EUT) Committee against LD 1111, sponsored by Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco), does not necessarily sink the measure but means it will face an uphill battle when considered by the full legislature. 

As originally drafted, LD 1111 would have capped the length of water extraction contracts municipal utilities can sign with companies such as Poland Spring to three years. The bill was subsequently amended to limit the length of those contracts to seven years. 

On Wednesday, proponents of the measure said they were willing to further amend the bill to limit the length of water extraction contracts to 10 years.

The push to limit the extent of water extraction deals comes in response to worries about contracts that can run up to 45 years that Poland Spring — which obtains water from sources around Maine but is owned by the Connecticut-based corporation BlueTriton — has inked with some local districts. Advocates say those long-term accords are risky, given the uncertainty of the impacts of escalating climate change on water levels. They also argue that large-scale water extraction itself poses a risk to local ecosystems and aquifers and creates a litany of damaging plastic waste.  

LD 1111 has been the subject of a lengthy debate. The bill was originally introduced earlier this year and received a favorable 8-5 vote from the EUT Committee in May. 

However, according to reporting from the New York Times in October, Poland Spring — via its owner BlueTriton — sought to sink the measure. The Times reported that after the bill received its favorable committee vote in May, lobbyist Elizabeth Frazier, representing BlueTriton, proposed an amendment that would “strike everything” from the legislation, essentially attempting to nix the original purpose of the measure. Following that, the EUT Committee backed off on advancing the bill, the newspaper found, and the legislation was ultimately carried over to this session. 

“Because all this happened behind closed doors, the public doesn’t know that Poland Spring stalled the process,” Rep. Chris Kessler (D-South Portland), a supporter of LD 1111 and a member of the EUT Committee, told the Times. 

A spokesperson for BlueTriton said in an emailed statement to Maine Morning Star on Wednesday that the company engaged in the legislative process in “good faith” and “tried unsuccessfully to find a compromise” on the bill.

After that prolonged debate on LD 1111, the EUT Committee once again considered the bill on Wednesday. This time, the panel voted against the measure 7-5. Senate Chair Mark Lawrence, a Democrat from York County, and Rep. Gerry Runte, a Democrat from York, joined with Republicans on the committee in rejecting the bill. Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Hancock) along with Reps. Stanley Zeigler (D-Montville), Valli Geiger (D-Rockland), Kessler, and Sophie Warren (D-Scarborough) supported limiting water extraction contract lengths to 10 years. 

In an interview after the vote, O’Neil, the bill sponsor, argued that allowing long-term water extraction deals that don’t protect against changing environmental or financial conditions is not beneficial for Mainers. 

“Business as usual just isn’t working and we need to be more cautious,” she said.

O’Neil added that she has heard from many people who feel LD 1111 is a common sense reform. 

“I think most Mainers would be surprised that contracts this long are being made and … would want to have some kind of guardrail on how long they can be,” she said. 

Another supporter of the bill, Warren, said during the committee hearing that she hopes the legislature as a whole, either in this session or down the road, will take up and pass a variation of LD 1111, particularly given the uncertainty around future aquifer levels as the climate crisis escalates. 

“I hope … we will listen and heed that abundance of caution, which I do believe is what a majority of Maine people would like to see from the legislature, especially in light of the coming climate crisis,” she said. 

Although Maine is seen as a water rich area, it was only last year that large swaths of the state were experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions. In addition, a recent New York Times investigation found that the U.S. as a whole is using up its groundwater supply at an alarming rate.  

However, Lawrence, one of the Democratic committee members who voted against the bill, said during the hearing that while he views climate change and its impact on water as an important issue, he doesn’t believe limiting the length of extraction contracts is the best way to tackle the problem.

“Choosing 10 years or whatever length you choose — five, seven — is very arbitrary and I don’t feel it will accomplish the goal,” he said. “I think we need to look at this as a resource protection issue and figure out another way to address this.”

Lawrence also noted that local water utilities, including some that have signed long-term deals with Poland Spring, opposed LD 1111. He argued that limiting the length of contracts would be restrictive for the utilities and give them less flexibility in keeping rates low for customers. 

In the emailed statement, BlueTriton also focused on what it sees as the benefits of long-term water contracts, which the company said provide local utilities with guaranteed long-term income that helps stabilize costs.

“Limiting contract terms eliminates the upside for ratepayers and makes it impractical for Poland Spring to plan operations and invest in the future,” the company stated.

Another lawmaker who opposed the bill, Rep. Steven Foster (R-Dexter), said there are already entities in Maine monitoring the drinking water situation to ensure the state’s aquifers are healthy.  

“I think we have a pretty good watchdog system in place and I’m comfortable with this bill not being necessary and keeping it a local issue,” he said.    

But O’Neil said she’s not convinced that the current apparatus will work for Mainers in the long-term. 

“It’s not a good deal for ratepayers to get pennies for water being sold to Poland Spring for the same price for 20 years,” she said. “It’s just not a good deal for Mainers.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect attribution for the source of BlueTriton’s quotes.