The Mountain Ear
Poland Springs: ‘Aiming at wrong target’
Former Maine legislator spearheads drive to tax bottled water producers
By Paul Stuart, Contributing Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004
FRYEBURG, Maine - Many see Jim Wilfong as a modern-day David - poised to take on a corporate Goliath. But the giant that Wilfong is facing claims he's focusing his righteous wrath at the wrong target.
The primary giant that Wilfong is facing off with in this effort is Nestle Waters North America Inc., parent company of 14 bottled-water companies, including Maine's famous Poland Spring Water Co.
Wilfong's big concern is water - clean, fresh water. And he emphasizes his concerns are national and even worldwide, even though his efforts for now are focused at the state and even local level.
At the state level, he hopes to get a tax bill passed that he says will not only help protect water, but also raise at least $100 million a year for Maine to use for K-12 education, with some also going into a fund to aid entrepreneurs in starting businesses.
Wilfong, a former Maine state representative (from 1974-1978), was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1999 as the Small Business Administration's Assistant Administra-tor for International Trade, serving in that capacity until 2001.
Along the way in his career he picked up on what he sees as an oncoming worldwide crisis in the area of fresh water supplies. In connection with that concern, he is heading an initiative called Maine's Water Dividend Trust (MWDT).
$100 million a year for state
One of the initiative's main goals is to get legislation passed to put a 20-cent per gallon tax on water drawn from Maine's aquifers for use as a bottled water product.
MWDT predicts the levy would raise about $100 million a year in revenue for the state, and at the same time would increase protection of the underground fresh water supply.
With extensive water operations in both Poland and Hollis, as well as operations in Fryeburg, Maine, the Poland Spring company withdraws considerably more than 300 million gallons of water a year from the aquifers that underlie Maine - some of which, Wilfong says, stretch into New Hampshire's Mt. Washington Valley, reaching to Bartlett.
The tax proposal being pushed by MWDT would levy the 20 cents per gallon on extractions exceeding 200,000 gallons a year.
The arithmetic would seem to indicate that Poland Spring alone, if the measure were to become law, would pay considerably more than $60 million a year in taxes for its consumption of water.
Poland Spring: ‘Unfair’ measure
Officials of Nestle Waters, Poland Spring's parent company, don't think that's either necessary or fair.
Agreeing that most states are looking for ways to raise funds in these times, Nestle spokesperson Jane Lazgin said in an interview on Monday, May 24, that taxing water - especially water used only by bottled drinking water companies like Poland Spring - isn't fair or equitable, adding that it could also hurt Maine's efforts to keep and attract other kinds of businesses.
“When people think of water, they don't think of hamburgers or reams of paper,” Lazgin said. “But those and other industries use a lot more water on the whole than do bottled water companies.”
Lazgin said her corporation's 14 bottled-water companies extract from aquifers across the United States only .001 percent of water used in the country.
And she said that while candidly admitting that those same 14 divisions of Nestle Waters account for 30 percent of the water usage of the entire industry nationwide.
Other, smaller bottled-water companies in Maine have expressed fears such a tax would force them to increase prices to consumers.
But Lazgin seemed also to believe the door was still open for compromise.
“For some time,” Lazgin said, “we've wanted to sit down and talk with Mr. Wilfong. Apparently it just hasn't been convenient yet.”
Lazgin indicated if the state should find it appropriate to tax extracted water, it might not be quite so damaging if the necessary revenue sources were wider - that is if other industries that use water, often in as high or higher volumes than Poland Spring - were included in the levy. The same money, she said, could be raised without such a heavy impact on the bottled-water industry alone.
Lazgin noted that Poland Spring and similar companies tend to be very protective of the environment and the aquifers, because they have a vested interest in sustainability.
The direction the Maine initiative takes could be a compass for similar legislation reportedly being discussed in some circles in New Hampshire and Massachusetts as well.
Wilfong, on Tuesday, May 25, said he was heartened to hear of some of Lazgin's comments.
“I'm all for being fair,” Wilfong said. “I haven't received an invitation yet, so far as I know,” Wilfong added, “but I'd be willing to talk.”
In the meantime, Wilfong confirmed that Maine's Green Party had put a plank in this year's party platform in essence endorsing the initiative.
“What's even more exciting for me,” Wilfong added, “is that in this issue I'm finding Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Green Party members and others cooperating for the same objective - water conservation and a sound economic future.
“It's not just the issue itself - it's that this kind of cooperation shows how people with different perspectives can cooperate on issues that are important for all of us,” Wilfong added.
Wilfong, in an interview for The Mountain Ear on April 23, stressed his belief that the production and sustainability of water resources will in the near future become more critical than the issues that have surrounded petroleum resources for so many decades.
“Already super-tankers are being designed to carry not oil, but water to ports in lands where water is scarce. And water is getting scarce in many parts of the United States,” Wilfong said. “Then, too, for their own reasons,” he warned,“multi-national corporations are making often-successful efforts to gain control of water rights and the facilities that provide drinking water for major urban areas throughout the world.”
In specific terms, the MWDT initiative in Maine would distribute resulting revenues in the following way:
- 10 percent to aid municipalities in an aquifer on a per-mile basis to cover costs of improving roads and other infrastructure affected by the water-extraction activities,
- 50 percent to help Maine meet the costs of K-12 education, and
- 40 percent to a revolving fund to help Maine residents, especially young people, to start small business enterprises. Wilfong is hoping to get the initiative on the June 2005 ballot, or, at the latest, on the November 2005 ballot.