A Maine company’s ‘raw’ water is getting global praise, ridicule, threats. The owners talk, unfiltered.
HARRISON — The New York Times ran a story about the up-and-coming trend of drinking unfiltered, untreated “raw water” and about the biggest players in the movement, including local men Bryan Pullen and Seth Pruzansky and their brand, Tourmaline Spring.
They considered the story fair.
They didn’t expect in its aftermath to be told, “you ***holes are dumber than dirt.”
The Times report offered views from people who thought the trend was risky, health-wise, and from people who thought it was the best thing ever — some for taste, some for what they see as a way to skirt government-backed mind control.
Days after the Dec. 29 article, Pullen and Pruzansky started getting emails. Hundreds of them. One of the first bore the subject line: “CBS National News Urgent Request.”
Suddenly, “CBS This Morning” was doing a live remote from their spring house.
Other media picked up the story, one calling raw water a “dangerous craze,” another “the gross new health trend that could kill you.” Comedy Central set aside six minutes on its news satire show “The Opposition with Jordan Klepper” to poke fun at raw water in general and Pullen and Pruzansky in particular.
“He’s done interviews with Colombia, Australia, Ireland, Uganda,” Pullen said of Pruzansky.
“He went on a talk show in L.A.,” Pruzansky said of Pullen.
That talk show was “The Doctors,” on which Pullen debated raw water’s merits with a rapper/physician named ZDoggMD.
The attention is all a bit much for the business partners who run a small company centered on a 150-year-old spring on a backcountry road in Harrison.
But it also might be just what they need.
Last year, they shipped an average of 20 cases of Tourmaline Spring water each week to Amazon.com.
On Monday, the same day the Comedy Central host pretended to take a swig of pothole water to mock the trend, they shipped 200.
‘MAGIC SOURCE OF WATER’
Pullen, a 59-year-old American Airlines pilot, became interested in water in 1985, when he flew his very first commercial flight out of Maine. The water he got in other parts of the country did not taste like the water he was used to here.
“It was immediately apparent; it sucks,” he said. “We have a water issue in this country. You’re really oblivious when you’re here in Maine because of all the great sources of water.”
Years later, he was living on 100 acres on a hilly back road in Harrison — “I work with people in tight, confined (spaces). I like it when there’s 50,000 trees and no humans,” he said — when he learned that a 55-room hotel had once existed down the street.
That hotel had been built around what is now called Summit Spring.
“It was explained to me very quickly there’s a magic source of water here,” he said. “I, of course, perked up.”
In commercial production on and off since 1875, the natural spring was on its fourth owner, a retired school teacher who ran the water through a 1,000-foot-long plastic pipe to her garage. She delivered five-gallon jugs to 65 customers “when her back didn’t hurt,” Pullen said.
He asked to buy the property in the 1990s, but the woman wouldn’t hear of it. In 2004, with the state cracking down on sanitation, she began entertaining offers.
Pullen claims Nestle, the owner of Poland Spring, was interested but the teacher balked.
A Poland Spring senior natural resource manager said the teacher approached Nestle and Nestle declined to buy it.
Regardless, Pullen made his own offer: $2.5 million, plus his word that he would safeguard the place. In writing, he said, he agreed not to sell to Nestle or two other big water giants for at least 15 years.
He mortgaged his home for the down payment and spent another $2 million on infrastructure that included a stainless steel containment box to cover the spring and protect the water from animals, and a small, gravity-fed bottling facility yards away.
For the first few years, he said, he treated his Summit Spring water because that’s what he’d been told he had to do. Then, in 2008, Pullen and Pruzansky met while Pullen was doing research for a bottled water forum at Bates College in Lewiston.
Pruzansky, 42, of Durham, is the co-founder of an organic nut company. He encouraged Pullen to sell his water untreated, and with state permission in 2009, Raw Water was born.
The pair struck up a formal partnership after Pruzansky got out of prison. (He was sentenced in 2011 to four and a half years after being found with two duffel bags containing 64 pounds of marijuana. He told the Portland Press Herald in 2016 he considered the time “an extended meditation retreat.”)
Pullen is now the majority shareholder and CEO of Summit Spring Water Inc. Pruzansky is president and the founder of the Tourmaline Spring brand.
In June 2016, they rebranded to Tourmaline Spring from Raw Water to combat an image problem.
“The name, for some people, connoted sewage,” Pullen said.
Today, they bottle Summit and Tourmaline from the same source, but only Summit water undergoes micro-filtration and UV treatment. Tourmaline water is completely unfiltered, untreated.
“We’re actually the pioneers of this untreated water phenomenon that everybody thinks just happened,” Pullen said. “We believe that we’re the only natural spring in the nation that captures, gravity-feeds directly into the bottle, without treatment, only at the source. Nobody else does what we’re doing.”
Last year they bottled 300,000 gallons, 60 percent of that Tourmaline.
Their spring produces 35 million gallons of water a year.
They’d bottle a ton more if they could sell it, Pullen said.
WHO’S WATCHING THE WATER?
Tourmaline Spring is the only “raw water” bottled in Maine as far as officials at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s drinking water program know. But the state, which regulates all bottled and municipal water, doesn’t consider it unique.
It must pass regular inspections and tests just like every other bottling company or town water source.
“You meet the water quality standards. If you can do it without treatment, that’s fine with us. If you have to have treatment, that’s fine with us, too,” said Roger Crouse, manager of the drinking water program.
The state started overseeing Pullen’s Raw Water in 2009, when it gave him permission to bottle and sell the unfiltered, untreated water. It continues to oversee Tourmaline Spring, testing the water four times a year for bacteria in addition to regular tests for nitrates, metals and other harmful elements, including lead and arsenic.
Crouse said it’s very rare for his program to receive a consumer complaint about water bottled in Maine, and Tourmaline is no exception. No one has filed a complaint against either Tourmaline or its predecessor.
“I think they’ve done quite well over the years. They don’t have any compliance issues,” Crouse said, adding, “Their water quality, the raw water quality, is great.”
Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, charged with inspecting the bottling facility for safety and sanitation, was last there in March 2015 for a joint inspection with the Food and Drug Administration, spokesman John Bott said. It passed with no issues.
“We typically try to inspect once a year, so clearly they’re due and we’ll be sending someone over there shortly to inspect,” Bott said this week.
While there are no water quality problems, there are two issues with Tourmaline Spring’s label: A claim that the “water is harvested in Maine from an ancient geologic spring so naturally pure that it is officially exempt from all processing requirements” and a claim that it’s “certified premium grade.”
The exemption claim isn’t correct. No bottlers in Maine are required to process or treat their water as long as it tests safe. (Everyone but Tourmaline Spring treats in Maine regardless of their test results, possibly for liability reasons, Crouse said.)
Pullen and Pruzansky said they thought they needed and received an exemption in 2009 after the state sent a letter allowing the sale of Raw Water. They said they recently learned they didn’t need or receive an exemption and plan to change that language on Tourmaline’s label.
The “certified premium grade” claim refers to a special license from the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Quality Trademark Program.
“I believe that they’re able to use ‘premuim grade;’ that’s in the statute,” Bott said. “The addition of ‘certified’ is different, that’s something that we’re looking at. We’re taking a look at, going forward, whether we want to see labels (before they go to print) from people operating underneath the license.”
Pullen said he believes the use of “certified” is appropriate and accurate since Tourmaline was awarded the designation.
GOOD OR BAD, BOTTLED OR TAP
In the past three weeks, the public has had a whole lot to say about raw water, not a lot of it nice.
Part of that chorus, from the Los Angeles Times: “the next ridiculous trend to hit the American food scene.”
From CNBC: “Some are paying a lot more for the luxury of drinking water that might not have fluoride but could still have chemicals from pesticides and dangerous bacteria. Also animal poop.”
And directed to Tourmaline Spring on Facebook: “Wow, just when I thought people couldn’t get more stupid … this takes the ****ing cake. You ***holes are dumber than dirt.”
Pullen and Pruzansky believe people don’t get what they’re doing or that they’re regulated or, from Pruzansky, that “the water is purified by the Earth in a way that makes it safe for human consumption.”
“The news organizations need to stop interviewing emergency room doctors and talk to geologists, hydrogeologists and laboratories and people who understand the Earth and water quality,” Pullen said. “It’s histrionics, getting everybody all fired up over nothing. If we’re morons, what is the state regulator at the Maine Drinking Water program? How about the FDA? Are these all morons, too? They allow us to do this.”
Hydrogeologist Andrew Reeve, a professor in the school of Earth and Climate Sciences at the University of Maine, agreed that sediments and rocks can naturally filter out micro-organisms that carry disease, but he couldn’t say it filters out everything, every time.
He’s not familiar with this particular spring or with the raw water craze outside of “a media report on NPR. It’s kind of a new hipster thing, I guess.”
“Historically, people went to springs because they did filter out, in some cases, all the bacteria,” Reeve said. “Certainly it cleans the water more than most surface water, but there’s always the chance something is going to get through.”
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England in Biddeford and the former head of the Maine CDC, believes Tourmaline Spring, at least, is safe because it goes through the same state testing as municipal water.
However, she’s not sure bottled water — any bottled water — is really worth the price most of the time.
“The least expensive and safest water we know is what comes out of your faucet,” she said.
While some raw water proponents have railed against tap water treatments and additives, Mills considers it necessary.
“Whatever’s done to municipal water is done because we’ve learned over the years, over the centuries what can make water harmful,” she said.
She points not only to bacteria and viruses, which can be introduced into a body of water by animals, but also to natural elements that can be dangerous at high levels.
“Those types of things people might say, ‘Oh, (the water) is really pristine because it’s drilled from way under the ground,’ but you can have too-high levels of arsenic, iron, fluoride and other elements that are naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust,” she said.
(While fluoride is particularly controversial — some people believe it’s used by the government as mind control — Mills said fluoride occurs naturally in groundwater. Some towns find they have too much and have to filter it out. Others find they have too little for dental protection and they add it.)
Mills sometimes buys bottled water for special flavors or carbonation, but she believes it’s not usually necessary, regardless of whether that bottled water is raw or treated.
“If you line up water from different sources — bottled water that’s out of some spring or something and municipal water — and you blindfold people and you don’t tell them which is which, they can’t tell. That’s been shown over and over again,” she said. “People cannot tell — they think (tap water) can’t be as good as what’s something out of a store, when actually it’s as good if not better.”
‘BRING IT ON’
Pullen and Pruzansky counter that people can tell; they describe their water as light and a little sweet, traits that are lost when it’s treated. They suggest it be stored like wine, cool not cold, and in the dark. (That’s the reason it ships in a box instead of less-expensive shrink wrap, Pullen said.)
They don’t push mind control conspiracy theories. They’re also purposely keeping their distance from the country’s other large raw water bottler, Live Water from Opal Spring in Oregon.
After the New York Times’ story, Live Water’s 2.5-gallon water-filled glass orbs jumped to $60.99 at one store the Times’ interviewed — and then sold out.
“(Live Water founder Mukhande Singh) is making a lot of crazy statements like water expires in a lunar cycle,” Pullen said. “Water never expires. He’s talking about women that can’t breastfeed and then they drink his water and they can? We don’t want to get involved in that. There’s no reason. Common sense, 150-year history. We don’t need to get into the ethereal reasons.”
Tourmaline Spring water is available at 300 stores in New England, mostly Whole Foods and mom-and-pop places. It retails for $2.99 a liter, $1.50 a half-liter.
They’ve been floored by the attention of the past three weeks, teetering between concern that the online vitriol might sink their business and hope that the attention might be what they need to grow.
In 14 years, Pullen said, he hasn’t pulled a paycheck from the operation; it hasn’t been profitable enough.
“You wouldn’t believe the things people are saying to us,” Pruzansky said. “What they’re insinuating is we could potentially poison people, which is completely not true at all. We have people basically threatening to kill us; that was the worst.”
Talk shows haven’t helped. Had Pullen ever seen an episode of “The Doctors” before, he said, he never would have flown to California to tape last week.
ZDoggMD, the stage name for Dr. Zubin Damania of Las Vegas, came at him with “Let’s party like it’s 1699,” according to Pullen.
Pullen dug back that “the closest thing to a natural spring this guy’s ever seen is the fountains at the Bellagio.”
The episode will air in the next two weeks. In Maine, the talk show can be seen on WPXT and WPME.
“I love the bright lights, bring it on — make the lights as bright as possible,” Pullen said. “Then we look really good and everybody else looks really bad. I love it when people want to come here and want to see it, because when you see it, you’re going to get it. It’s the people that don’t see it, that have no idea what they’re talking about, are just regurgitating the same nonsense and ignorance over and over again.”
“We’re hoping this media blitz against us is a blessing in disguise,” he said.
“Wow, just when I thought people couldn’t get more stupid . . . this takes the ****ing cake. You ***holes are dumber than dirt.”
— Facebook post to Tourmaline Spring
“I think they’ve done quite well over the years. They don’t have any compliance issues. . . . Their water quality, the raw water quality, is great.”
— Roger Crouse, manager of the Maine CDC’s drinking water program
“If we’re morons, what is the state regulator at the Maine Drinking Water program? How about the FDA? Are these all morons, too? They allow us to do this.”
— N. Bryan Pullen, CEO Summit Spring
“You wouldn’t believe the things people are saying to us. What they’re insinuating is we could potentially poison people, which is completely not true at all. We have people basically threatening to kill us; that was the worst.”
— Seth Pruzansky, president Summit Spring Water and founder of the Tourmaline Spring
Seth Pruzansky drinks a ladle of water from the Summit Spring in Harrison. The water is straight from the ground and is bottled and sold under the name Tourmaline Spring. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Tourmaline Spring water is untreated and bottled at Summit Spring in Harrison. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Seth Pruzansky, left, and Bryan Pullen of Summit Spring in Harrison. The spring is covered by a stainless steel container that sits in the spring house that was built in 1936. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Summitt Spring President Bryan Pullen walks into the Harrison spring house that was built in 1936. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Spring water straight from the ground enters a 3-inch pipe that gravity feeds to the bottling facility just down the hill. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Bryan Pullen, left, and his business partner, Seth Pruzansky, talk inside the Summit Spring bottling facility in Harrison. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Seth Pruzansky, left, and Bryan Pullen of Summit Spring in Harrison. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)