NESTLE´ EXTRACTION PLAN WOULD DRAW WATER FROM FAR BEYOND ITS WELLS WHILE PUTTING SEVERE RESTRICTIONS ON NEARBY RESIDENTS -- UNTIL THE WATER RUNS OUT
We live in a time when large corporations, let alone multi-nationals with tens of billions of dollars in assets, are so powerful that they routinely crush any and all opposition when their insatiable hunger for becoming even bigger and richer takes them into small communities off the beaten track. And so what is happening in a tiny northeastern Pennsylvania township is portentous as well as a reminder that neighbors united in opposition to really bad ideas can sometimes win even when their foe is huge, rapacious and immensely wealthy.
The township is Eldred, some 274 years old with a mere 2,500 residents, its 24 square miles nestled in farmland chockablock with free-flowing creeks and verdant gamelands in the rolling hills below Blue Mountain on the western edge of the Pennsylvania Poconos. Kunkletown sits at the only crossroads, but it is a town in only a figurative sense with a smattering of shops, a firehouse and nary a stop light.
Sleepy Eldred awoke from its slumber late last year when Nestlé Waters North America submitted an application to the township zoning board to pump water for its Deer Park Natural Spring Water brand from wells on private property it would lease a few hundred feet from the crossroads. An immense amount of water -- some 200,000 gallons a day -- would be pumped into tanker trucks, dozens of which would rumble through Kunkletown each day en route to a bottling plant in the Lehigh Valley and then back again.
This haul would reap Nestlé an astonishing $3 billion over a 10-year period at relatively little expense while returning little to Eldred except noise, pollution, degraded roads, lowered property values, the possibility that its wells would be contaminated and the likelihood they eventually will run dry.
Nestlé's application hinges on an improper change made in Eldred's zoning ordinance in 2014 when no one was looking. That is except a woman who at the time happened to be township planning commission secretary, as well as the mother of a daughter who at the time was a township supervisor and the girlfriend of the owner of the property where Nestlé has a tentative lease agreement to pump water. Planning commission minutes were surreptitiously altered at the request of the landowner's attorney, which resulted in the improper change hypothetically allowing Nestlé to extract massive quantities of water in an area of the township where it would otherwise be prohibited.
That change is being challenged in court by a group of homeowners, but it is an engineering report commissioned by the township that more immediately threatens to topple Nestlé's house of cards.
The April 15 report by Hanover Engineering Associates found that the company's application is deeply flawed on engineering, hydrogeological and environmental grounds. This comes as no surprise since after three township zoning board hearings on Nestlé's application, the case record is littered with discrepancies, miscalculations and outright deceits, which has prompted Nestlé to try to make voluminous amendments, additions and corrections to its original application over objections from the zoning board and lawyers for property owners.
This heightens the impression that the company parachuted into Eldred believing it was dealing with yokels whom its city slicker lawyers could strong arm.
Eldred is one of at least 50 communities nationwide where Nestlé is trying to leverage enormous-profits-for-nothing water grabs as part of a corporate strategy to dominate retails sales of a precious commodity that most people once took for granted. It already dominates bottled water sales worldwide.
A 20-ounce bottle of Deer Park Natural Spring Water costs $1.29 in area convenience stores, and back-of-the-envelope calculations show that for a minimal investment, Nestlé can generate about $825,000 each day from the two bulk extraction wells it wants to sink in Eldred. This translates into about $300 million a year, hence $3 billion over the life of the 10-year bulk water extraction permit it would seek from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) should it succeed on appeal after being turned down at the township level. The permit application also would be reviewed by the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), but the regulatory process is rigged.
All of the hydrological tests and other data required in the permit process are provided by Nestlé. There are no independent tests, while by regulators' own admission, the standards and water extraction algorithms used by the regulatory agencies are obsolete, dating from the early part of the 20th century, when Calvin Coolidge was president and there were as many horse-drawn carts as automobiles in Kunkletown, and do not take into account population growth, current water usage and the effects of climate change.
Pressed by this writer at a public meeting in Eldred in January to reveal how many mass extraction permits the DEP has rejected or required substantial modification to prior to approval, the agency's top Safe Water Drinking Permit Program official in northeastern Pennsylvania hemmed and hawed before finally admitting that no permit application has been rejected. Ever.
Nestlé's first expert witness, a civil engineer, has testified at a glacial pace about the company's proposed bulk water extraction facility at the three zoning hearings in response to questions from its lead attorney that frequently lapse into the minutiae of zoning law, that is unless you find barriers, buffers and boundaries to be compelling.
As it is, the testimony from the civil engineer is mere window dressing. The main event will be when Nestlé will have to explain -- under oath -- how it will be able to pump such an enormous amount of water without diminishing the fragile water table in Kunkletown and beyond, let alone not polluting wells. It won't be able to.
The company's intention is to wear down the opposition, but more and more people having packed the Kunkletown Fire Hall with each succeeding hearing although the good citizens of Eldred have pretty much had to go it alone. The regional political establishment is somnambulant except when running for re-election, controversy averse and slavishly pro-business, while the Pocono Record, the largest regional newspaper, is determinedly out to lunch as it crouches in its cowardly We Don't Want to Alienate Advertisers posture. Still, interest has grown as anti-Nestlé groups from around the country, as well as several large environmental and anti-corporate groups with heavily trafficked websites, show an interest.
Cross examination of the civil engineer by lawyers for the township and the homeowners, and then some of the homeowners themselves, will commence at a fourth hearing next month. A fifth hearing is scheduled for June and a sixth on July 20, two days before a Monroe County Court hearing on the homeowner challenge of the improperly changed ordinance. The judge could rule at the conclusion of that hearing, and two Nestlé employees are quietly telling opponents in their best "Sorry about the mess we've created" sotto voce voices that the company will not appeal the decision if there is a ruling determining that the ordinance is illegal.
While that is comforting and hypothetically would bring an abrupt end to an enormously expensive, stressful and disruptive experience for people who were minding their own business and did not deserve to be bigfooted by a powerful global corporation, a buck twenty-nine still will buy you a bottle of Deer Park Natural Spring Water and quitting would be totally out of character for Nestlé, which has a reputation for getting what it wants no matter what it takes.
CLICK HERE AND HERE FOR EARLIER NESTLE´-ELDRED POSTS. THE CONCERNED CITIZENS OF ELDRED TOWNSHIP GROUP HAS A FACEBOOK PAGE, WHILE “ILLEGAL ELDRED” IS AN EXCELLENT, DETAIL-ORIENTED BLOG. CLICK HERE FOR A VIDEO AND STORY BY AN ELDRED RESIDENT, HERE FOR A BIG-PICTURE LOOK AT NESTLE´ NATIONALLY FROM TRUTHOUT.ORG, AND HERE FOR A 20-MINUTE VIDEO OF EFFORTS TO STOP NESTLE´ IN ONE PICTURESQUE OREGON COMMUNITY.