Poland Spring draws more water out of the state every year — 875 million gallons in 2015. Will Rumford be tapped next?

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series looking at the growth of bottled water in Maine and the ripples it’s causing in Rumford.

Should Poland Spring tap Rumford?

Pro: The lure of jobs, money and new pipes

 Con: The fear of trucks, drought and a ‘Goliath’

On a sunny Friday last month, Mark Dubois scaled the overgrown alder thicket next to the river bank, bent down and drank from it.

Clean, cold, straight from the ground.

“It should taste like Poland Spring water,” Dubois quipped.


Does it?

He laughed, nodded.

“It does.”

And, some day soon, it just might be.

It’s been six years since Poland Spring, the No. 1-selling bottled spring water in the U.S., and its parent Nestle Waters North America tapped a new site in Maine.

The company, which has grown over 10 years from bottling 636 million gallons of water in Maine to 875 million, wants a new source for more.


Enter Rumford.

Dubois is overseeing Poland Spring’s preliminary testing of the site, which is owned and used by the Rumford Water District to provide water to townspeople. He’s a geologist and Maine native, with the company for more than 10 years. It’s his job to explore and explain the science. Could they get enough water that fits the Poland Spring taste for an investment here to make sense?

Simultaneously, it’s his job to feel out the town: What can Poland Spring offer Rumford to win citizens over to a massive draw on the water supply?

The multi-million-dollar project would trigger hiring six more drivers and bring exactly one job to town, post-construction, along with as-yet-unknown truck traffic and as-yet-unknown funds that might cover the water district’s looming bill as it upgrades 100-year-old water pipes.

It doesn’t yet have any vocal supporters, not even Dubois. The site might work for the company, it might not.

Quickly mustered opponents talk about Poland Spring in almost vampiric terms: Once you let them in, it’s hard to get them out.


Already there are allegations about secret meetings, questions about the timing of a water district charter change and a general mistrust fueled by the fact most residents learned about Poland Spring’s interest only recently, more than a year after water testing here began.

For those on the fence, there’s the need to reconcile Poland Spring’s millions of dollars in community giving statewide and 900 Maine jobs — work that pays on average $20 an hour — with Nestle’s presence on a 2016 Corporate Hall of Shame ballot for alleged water abuses out of state.

A decision is coming from both sides this winter, in a matter of months.

Does Poland Spring want in? Will Rumford let it?

North Spring A isn’t the only thing bubbling and churning.



The Rumford deal — if there is a deal — would see Poland Spring enter an agreement with the Rumford Water District to draw so many million gallons of water a year from a new well installed by Poland Spring off Route 5. 

From there, the company would run pipeline to a new load station with easy, year-round access; in Denmark and Kingfield, load stations are four miles away from Poland Spring wells there. The company would pay the Rumford Water District one rate per gallon for the water, a lease fee for the borehole and pipeline, and some level of taxes to the town. 

It would be a similar relationship to the one Poland Spring has in Fryeburg, and unique in that same sense. At its eight other Maine sites — everywhere but Fryeburg — Poland Spring owns the land outright; there is no local utility go-between.

For each of those eight sites, there’s a fee of $50 per million gallons from the Department of Environmental Protection; an annual $250 DEP site fee; and a fee up to $2,900 from the Maine Drinking Water Program based on draw size.

For instance, 100 million gallons of water would cost $8,150 in state fees. 

That’s quite a difference from Fryeburg, where Poland Spring paid Fryeburg Water Co. roughly $300,000 last year, according to Dubois. It withdrew 144.7 million gallons. Earlier this year, it won a challenge in front of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to keep pumping there for at least the next 25 years.


Some organizers who opposed Poland Spring in Fryeburg have followed it northeast to Rumford.

Nisha Swinton in Portland is a senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, a national group involved with the Fryeburg lawsuit.

She counts among F&WW’s successes efforts to tank Poland Spring’s interest in drawing water from the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Wells Water District and from underneath a wildlife management area in Newfield and Shapleigh, both about eight years ago.

“What we find is it’s extremely hard to get Nestle out of a place that they’ve already been in, so that’s why we’re excited to work in Rumford with the local folks there in order to ensure that Nestle does not set up shop,” said Swinton, who spoke at the first event organized by Rumford opponents this summer.

In Poland Spring and Nestle’s case, it’s not especially personal: Swinton and F&WW oppose all bottled water. She believes it should be a free human right and shouldn’t be sold as a commodity. She also feels Nestle and other bottlers undermine public confidence in tap water to grow their bottom lines.

And growing they are: Several industry trade groups forecast that 2016 will be the first year Americans drink more bottled water than soda.


Ben Gilman at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce considers that sort of talk an “anti-business activist” take on the company.

“They’re sustainable jobs from a renewable resource,” said Gilman, the chamber’s senior government relations specialist working on natural resource issues. “It’s also part of the Maine brand that we send out there all over the country — ‘What it is to be from Maine.'”

That industry is thriving and ought to be encouraged, he said.

“Maine (has) a beautiful environment,” added Gilman. “We take care of it and we share it with the world.”

In this case, mostly a half-liter at a time.

Nestle Waters North America owns five brands of spring water across the U.S. The Poland Spring brand’s market officially stretches to New Jersey. Its half-liter bottle is the No. 1 scanned SKU in New York City, according to the company.



Maine had 20 active bottled water companies in 2013, the latest figures available from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Maine Drinking Water Program.

None come close to Poland Spring’s size; only two others, H.P. Hood and Pequawket Water Co., cracked the million-gallon water mark.

Last year, Poland Spring had DEP permits to withdraw more than a billion gallons.

It’s a huge number, but a fraction of the 24 trillion gallons of rain and snow falling here annually, according to Maine State Geologist Robert Marvinney.

“You have to think of very large numbers when we’re thinking of water resources in Maine,” he said.


Of that 24 trillion gallons, an estimated 30 to 50 percent runs off the land, 10 to 20 percent — 2 trillion to 5 trillion gallons — makes it into the ground to recharge aquifers and the rest either evaporates or is quickly taken up by plants.

“We just have an abundant resource and we additionally have a dispersed population that reduces the impacts on groundwater resources,” Marvinney said. “You go to a very populated state and there’s likely to be some level of contamination of groundwater just because there’s so many humans doing so many things on the landscape.”

Even in this summer’s dry conditions, including extreme drought in parts of York County, there’s enough water for public water systems, bottled water and irrigation if there’s careful management and monitoring, he said.

The DEP regulates Poland Spring’s three bottling sites in Poland, Hollis and Kingfield, as well as most draw sites. Some, like Clear Spring in Hollis — the company’s largest single draw site at 227.5 million gallons in 2015 —  are required to report in monthly during the summer so the state can closely monitor local water levels, according to DEP Environmental Specialist Mark Margerum.

If nearby stream flows get too low, that triggers weekly check-ins. If it drops below the next measure, the state can tell Poland Spring to scale back pumping.

“So it’s real-time monitoring based on triggers of concern,” Margerum said.


Between October 2014 and September 2015, Hollis fell below that first alert level for 70 days, according to an annual report filed with the DEP. It fell below the minimum level for 15 days.

The DEP didn’t tell Poland Spring to stop; it decided the drop was due to natural conditions, Margerum said.

That same report, by Portland engineers Woodard & Curran, ends: “Poland Spring’s operations have not adversely impacted water quality, water quantity, other natural resources or domestic water users during the 2015 water year.”

Annual reports for Poland Spring’s other active sites in 2015 end much the same way: “not adversely effecting the aquifer.” 

“You just go west of the Mississippi and water is just what everybody talks about and it’s very, very political. Agriculture and cities are all dependent on a very limited resource,” said John Peckenham, director of the Maine Water Research Institute at the University of Maine. “In our part of the world, we actually have a massive surplus of fresh water. If you want to think of it as a commodity, we have far more than we can use.

“So the issues as I see them really come down to, ‘Where is the water that’s suitable and meets the definition of spring water so that we can bottle it in sufficient quantities to make a profit in the marketplace?'” he said. “If you looked at it on whole, across the whole state, we can’t even measure what fraction goes out in bottles compared to everything else. But all problems are local problems. You start going on a smaller and smaller scale, are people being effected? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”



In Rumford, the site under consideration now with 20-plus Poland Spring test wells is broadly known as Milligan Well and currently supplies about 75 percent of daily water to 1,700 customers, according to Superintendent Brian Gagnon.

Even after any deal, it would remain the district’s primary water source.

Residents found out last month that the water giant has been eyeing the town for a while.

Poland Spring’s Dubois first informally approached Gagnon in November 2014, almost two years ago, according to water district trustees.

In written responses to the public’s questions in August, trustees said Poland Spring began tests in the summer of 2015.


Despite a few mentions of Dubois in water district meeting minutes, most people in town discovered Poland Spring’s interest a full year later, in the June 15 edition of the Rumford Falls Times, after Gagnon reached out to the newspaper.

“Very few people visit the water district meetings at all; they had apparently next to no people coming until people got wind of this,” said Jake Pitcher, an Andover resident and member of the new Western Maine Water Alliance formed to fight Poland Spring’s plans. “That definitely took people aback to hear that (Mark’s) been here for that long.”

That’s when opposition and whispers kicked up.

A rumor started of a secret meeting between Dubois, Gagnon, water district board of trustees President Harry Burns and state Sen. John Patrick, the lawmaker who sponsored a charter change for the water district six months earlier. (A now-contentious charter change. Water district officials say the change had nothing to do with paving the way for Poland Spring to come into town; opponents don’t believe that and two weeks ago retained a lawyer to look into it.)

Trustees confirmed the meeting, rather cryptically, writing only: “Brian Gagnon and Mark Dubois spoke with John Patrick one day for approximately 10 minutes and Harry Burns was present.”

Pitcher called that “extremely disconcerting.”


“We’re talking about one of the largest food corporations on the planet . . . meeting with a member of the Maine Legislature and the Rumford Water District superintendent in private,” Pitcher said. “That to me is the very definition of a smoky, closed door.”

Patrick, asked about that meeting by the Sun Journal, called it a courtesy visit that took place in his driveway.

“They basically told me since I was the sponsor of the bill and state senator, that I should be made aware that they may be looking at doing something with Nestle,” Patrick said. “I said, ‘OK, good luck.’ I said, ‘It’s probably going end up a firestorm. You might get a lot of push-back.’

“I didn’t actually use ‘firestorm,'” he added. “I used a different adjective that I’m not going to say.”

NEXT week: Pro. Con. And how the ultimate decision in Rumford rests on just three people.

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