AUGUSTA — In four hours of testimony Wednesday, with opponents and proponents equally divided, Rumford resident after Rumford resident stood to tell legislators they want a vote in deciding whether the town should welcome Poland Spring to town.

All three members of the Rumford Water District urged legislators not to let that happen — saying there’s too much risk of the public unraveling a carefully negotiated contract that could do the town good.

State Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford, said she sponsored LD 90, “An Act to Amend the Charter of the Rumford Water District,” though she is neither for nor against Poland Spring’s current proposal to withdraw 100 million gallons or more a year from wells on water district property.

Her emergency bill would force commercial water contracts for extraction or resale in front of the district be put to a public vote.

“The intent of this bill is not to hinder the ability of Rumford to contract with (Poland Spring’s corporate parent) Nestle, but only to allow more voices to be heard,” Keim said in front of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.

She has asked colleagues to consider it quickly. The Water District plans to hold a public hearing on a 15- to 20-year agreement with Poland Spring on April 5 and to vote on it May 10.

The bill would need two-thirds support in the House and Senate to pass. It’s scheduled for a workshop next week.

Poland Spring has been growing by leaps and bounds, two weeks ago announcing that it’s looking for a site for its fourth bottling plant in Maine along with two new springs in addition to the potential site in Rumford.

The company withdrew 902 million gallons of water from Maine springs last year. It first approached the Rumford Water District in November 2014 and began a test well in the summer of 2015. Most townspeople didn’t know that until a newspaper story in the summer of 2016, which quickly sparked opposition to Poland Spring’s plans.

State Rep. John Madigan, D-Rumford, who retired as Rumford town manager last week, said selectmen have their hands tied — there’s no room to weigh in on any water contract; the local decision is solely in the hands of the three trustees.

Poland Spring’s interest “has created a lot of anxiety, particularly by the neighbors,” Madigan said. “This is the appropriate place for this particular legislation, so it’s going to be up to you. The town really has no say.”

He, too, was neither for nor against Rumford becoming Poland Spring’s 10th spring site.

“This is a really big issue,” he said. “When Sen. Keim first came to me and asked me to co-sponsor, my question to her was, ‘If the paper mill in Rumford wanted to put in a new paper machine, would you expect the people to have a vote in that?’ This is private business when you get right down to it. It’s a tough situation.”

State Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, called the bill one of the most important the committee would see this year “in terms of its importance to the people of our great state.”

“LD 90 asks the fundamental question of whether individual Mainers have a say in the control of their local drinking water,” Sylvester said. “I believe the answer should be yes.”

Rumford resident Linda McGregor said that whether in the supermarket, library or Marden’s, “everywhere in Rumford you will hear these questions over and over, ‘You mean we don’t get to vote on the water?'”

Todd Papianou of Rumford said he had never put up a political lawn sign, until now.

“No other issue has seemed this clear to me until my right to vote was taken away,” he said.

James Thibodeau, chairman of the Rumford Water District, said the public hasn’t historically had a say in Water District decisions. It’s up to trustees, he said, to consider whether any potential agreements won’t impede safe, reliable drinking water, will stabilize rates and bring economic opportunity.

“A vote based on a subjective, popular opinion could override the careful, informed work of the trustees and the objective review by the state agencies,” Thibodeau said. “It’s been this way 100-plus years and no one has had any complaints.”

Asked by a legislator if there was room to compromise, Trustee Harry Burns said, not really.

“There’s two very different opinions going: One is we don’t sell anything to Nestle and one is that we think we can do it under controlled circumstances by watching sustainability and allowing them to take the water that’s there above and beyond what we need,” he said.

Several other Water District heads from around the state testified that they worried any change to Rumford’s charter would force change on them.

“I think it’s going to be a domino effect for all us other districts in the state, for sure,” said Jeff Day, superintendent of the Lincoln Water District.

Day said he’s had eight mill closures in five years.

“I would love to have Poland Spring come into Lincoln and give them 500,000 gallons a day and bring our infrastructure back, keep our rates down, keep the tax rates down for our fire protection and it would benefit everybody,” Day said. “I just think it would be a great business deal. And matter of fact, I will make it publicly known today: Poland Spring is showing interest in the town of Lincoln.”

Mark Dubois, a Poland Spring geologist and natural resource manager, said the Rumford project was still in its early stages and he wasn’t seeing the groundswell of opposition that several people talked about.

“We are not asking to control the water resource; we are asking to be just a customer,” Dubois said. “We want to be a partner in Maine. We would like to be here another 172 years.”

Several legislators on the utlity committee commented on a lack of trust in the room.

“There’s nothing worse than mistrust — it just leads to further alienation and hard feelings,” said Sen. David Woodsome, co-chairman of the committee. “I see this as an internal issue here for the people of Rumford and the Water District to settle. That’s my personal feeling. I think there’s been a lot of missteps, whether they were planned or unplanned. It’s unfortunate; I guess I’ll leave it at that.”

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State Sen. Lisa Keim testifies Wednesday in Augusta in support of her bill, which would give Rumford residents a vote on whether Poland Spring creates a water-extraction site there.

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