Mark Dubois, a geologist and natural resource manager for Poland Spring, said this week the company is ready to start looking for the site of its fourth bottling plant in Maine along with two new springs, increasing capacity by about 50 percent of what the company bottled last year.
AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has nominated a Nestle Waters’ executive to the body that oversees environmental protection in Maine, drawing the ire of the company’s critics.
Mark Dubois, Nestle Waters’ public face in Maine, is under consideration for a seat on the panel that rewrites the Department of Environmental Protection’s major substantive rules, judges major permit applications of statewide significance and acts as an appeals court for emergency orders issued by the commissioner. Dubois, the local natural resources manager for the company that pumps and bottles Maine water taken from sources in seven Maine towns under its Poland Springs brand, has a confirmation hearing Wednesday before a legislative panel.
Critics of Dubois’ employer – which has been embroiled in high-profile controversies over water pumping deals in Fryeburg and Rumford in recent years – denounced his nomination to the seven-member Board of Environmental Protection, which also is charged with making recommendations on amending the state’s environmental laws.
“The depth and scope of Nestle’s interest and potential conflicts just doesn’t compare with any of the other individuals serving on the board,” said Nickie Sekera, a human rights activist from Fryeburg who was among the leading local opponents of Nestle’s controversial water deal with that town’s family-controlled water utility. “This is them stacking the deck. This gives them another level and scope of influence.”
The company – which owns land and processing facilities, and depends on trucking and water pumping arrangements – has a wide range of potential interests that might come before the board, from future project permits to land, development and water use regulations.
Daniel Davis, chairman of the planning board of Porter, wrote legislators in his personal capacity Tuesday urging them not to confirm Dubois because Nestle’s wide-ranging interests “will introduce the need for constant monitoring and increased due diligence on the part of the remaining Environmental Protection board members,” he wrote.
In an email to the Portland Press Herald, Davis said Dubois’ employer was very different than those of other board members, noting that a corporation with “a market capitalization 30 times the entire state’s budget is not equivalent to a civic volunteer who has wastewater treatment facility employment, owns a local business or has the education background with a genuine desire to help the people of this state. It is reckless for state officials to not differentiate” between the two.
Nestle Waters North America, which purchased the Poland Springs brand in 1992, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestle SA, the Swiss conglomerate that is the world’s largest food and beverage company.
Dubois said via email that he would not respond to media inquiries about his appointment until after Wednesday’s confirmation hearing before the legislature’s environment and natural resources committee. He is a geologist who has worked for the company for the past 13 years and previously was a project manager for engineering firm Woodard & Curran.
LePage nominated Dubois on Jan. 4, writing: “I am confident that you will make a valuable contribution to the state in that position.” His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Nisha Swinton, northeast organizer for the Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based organization that’s been critical of Nestle Waters’ operations in Maine and elsewhere, also opposed Dubois’ appointment in a statement.
“Granting decision making power to an employee of a multinational bottled water company whose business practices have drawn massive public opposition and controversy is more than just an obvious conflict of interest – it is an attempt to put corporate profits over public health and the protection of natural resources,” Swinton said.
Nestle Waters triggered a conflict-of-interest nightmare for the state’s Public Utilities Commission in 2013-14, when all three commissioners and the state’s public advocate were forced to recuse themselves from a case involving the approval of a long-term contract between the company and Fryeburg’s family-controlled water utility at rates critics said were too low.
All four officials had prior ties to the company, with two having actually helped create the water giant’s relationship with the water utility while attorneys at the Portland firm of Pierce Atwood. Legislators had to write a new law to provide a mechanism to allow alternate commissioners to step in and adjudicate the case.
The case also called into question the propriety of its prior dealings with Fryeburg’s Hastings family, which controlled the local utility. Under state law, the utility couldn’t sell water to Nestle for a rate above the ordinary rate it charged regular residential customers, so in 1997 family members and an employee at Woodard and Curran created a private pass-through company – Pure Mountain Springs – which brought the water from the utility at the low rate and sold it to Nestle Waters at a much higher, though undisclosed, price, earning millions in revenue in the process.
In 2008, Nestle Waters bought this pass through company, allowing it to buy bulk water at one-tenth of a cent a gallon. In 2014, alternate PUC commissioners approved a new 25-year deal between the company and the Fryeburg water utility locking in the low rate in exchange for lease fees and a guaranteed annual payment critics said was too low.
The company made a similar 15-year deal to pump water from the publically owned Rumford Water District in 2017. It has bottling plants in Kingfield and Hollis, owns a regulated fish hatchery in Pierce Pond Township, and has 850 full-time employees in Maine.
The board also has begun soliciting public input for a review of Maine’s water quality standards, a process required every three years by the federal clean Water Act, and expects to make recommendations on the issue in January 2019, according to a report it filed with the lawmakers in November.
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, co-chairman of the confirmation panel, did not respond to an interview request. His committee also will take up the nomination of Susan Lessard, the town manager of Bucksport, to the board, which she served on from 2007 to 2015.