Thursday, March 31, 2016

Update: The Great Nestlé-Deer Park Billion Dollar Poconos Spring Water Grab

When opposition began to coalesce late last year against Nestlé Waters North America's plan to pump water for its Deer Park Natural Spring Water brand from wells in a rural northeastern Pennsylvania township, it seemed like a classic mismatch. 
On one side was the world's largest food and beverage company, with annual revenues larger than the GDPs of many countries, and a reputation for getting its way in the communities and markets where it imposed its presence, whether welcome or not.  On the other side were four property owners living adjacent to the proposed Nestlé wells who were concerned about their own wells becoming contaminated and eventually running dry, as well as the negative impact on their community, Eldred Township, with its rich 274-year-old history, free-flowing creeks and verdant gamelands in the rolling hills below Blue Mountain on the western edge of the Poconos. 
Nestlé believed it was dealing with yokels whom its city slicker attorneys could strong arm as they have in many other communities where it has sunk wells and extracted water at little cost and for enormous profit.  What it has encountered instead is a group of savvy and knowledgeable residents who are well aware that the state and regional environmental agencies that should send Nestlé packing are in the company's hip pocket, that the county political establishment is cowed, and the reporter covering the story for the local newspaper is being kept on a short leash.  So they will have to go it alone to protect their properties, their township and their water. 
Four months on, these property owners also have lawyered up, hiring a highly regarded local attorney who specializes in zoning law and a nationally prominent litigator with an outstanding record of pro-environment victories.  With their help, the property owners have fought Nestlé to a draw as the company litters the public record with a growing number of missteps, miscalculations and outright deceits, undermining its case for the wells and enhancing the once long-shot chances that the good people of Eldred will prevail in the end.
The fight against Nestlé advanced on two fronts this week: Before the Eldred Township Zoning Board on Wednesday evening, where the company's application for a permit for two bulk water extraction wells is encountering stiff resistance, and in Monroe County Court of Common Pleas on Thursday, where the four property owners, now joined by 46 other township residents, have filed a petition asking the court to declare null and void a surreptitiously enacted township zoning ordinance that added a special exception use so the company can site wells in an area zoned commercial.  
Although Nestlé did not announce its intentions until last summer, it had begun examining an 80-acre tract of land known as the Gower Property for a bulk extraction well site as early as 2011, and was testing the water there and sending out applications to permitting agencies in 2012.  The Gower Property has a long history of uses, including as a dump for industrial and residential waste, and most recently as a sand pit.   
Under the application, two bulk water extraction wells would be bored and water pumped at the rate of 200,000 gallons per day into tank trucks for transportation to a Deer Park bottling plant near Allentown in the Lehigh Valley.  The wells would pump for 10 years with an option to continue pumping for an additional 15 years.   
The Gower Property is in Eldred's commercial district.  
Prior to 2014, water extraction wells were defined as an industrial activity only permitted in areas zoned industrial under the zoning laws of Eldred and four neighboring townships with which it shares regional planning.  In May 2014, when no one was looking, a change was made in Eldred’s ordinance -- but curiously not in the ordinances of the neighboring townships -- allowing water extraction in the commercial district.  The mother of the girlfriend of the Gower Property owner is said to have altered Eldred Planning Commission minutes on the advice of the property owner’s attorney, who in turn misrepresented the existing ordinance and submitted the change to a planning consultant, improperly bypassing the Planning Commission (which was on record as opposing any bulk water extraction in the township) and the Eldred Board of Supervisors. The consultant then forwarded the change to the Monroe County Planning Commission, where it was greenlighted. 
Nestlé's application with the township was filed on December 30 of last year in an obvious effort to get it on the books before the Eldred Board of Supervisors would have the opportunity to prohibit bulk water extraction at its January 4 meeting. 
The company argues that ground water in the commercial zone is preferable to the industrial zone because it is clean and plentiful.  It also would be free. 
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 in revenue each day from the Eldred wells.  This translates into about $300 million a year and an astonishing $3 billion over the life of the 10-year bulk water extraction permit it is seeking from the state.  
In return for that $3 billion windfall, Nestlé has stated it would establish a Community Benefits Fund of up to $750,00, although the actual amount would be contingent on how much water it is permitted to withdraw.  It suggests the money could be used for the purchase of open space, recreation and fire department equipment.   
Not stated is the possibility that residents' wells would be contaminated as the water table is drawn down by the bulk water extraction wells, and then dry up altogether. 
Meanwhile, the Eldred Township Planning Commission, coming somewhat late to the party, voted unanimously earlier in March to recommend that their Zoning Board deny the Nestlé application.   
"The proposed use is not in harmony with the purposes, goals, objectives and standards of the township comprehensive plan and its ordinance," wrote commission chairman Robert Boileau. 
In a 24-page letter to the Zoning Board, the commissioners raised numerous objections that, not coincidentally, are many of the talking points being used by residents opposing Nestlé:
* The project is inconsistent with the goal of the township's Joint Comprehensive Plan, which is to enhance the character of the area, not to diminish it. 
* The proposed water withdrawal amount is disproportionate to the land area of the Gower Property relative to the surrounding recharge and surface water areas, which are not controlled by Nestlé.  
* Tanker truck traffic, estimated by Nestlé to be between 60 and 94 trips per day to and from the Gower Property, will diminish the desirability of Kunkletown village, through which the trucks would have to pass, create safety and noise problems, and possibly damage road surfaces and bridges. 
* The negative aspects of the project will not be offset by any long-term public benefit.  No jobs would be created or additional tax revenues generated, while property values would diminish, and with them tax revenue. 
* Even limited tests on Nestlé's test wells diminished the flow of a nearby stream by 12 percent and the water level in the wells of two adjacent properties dropped, one 10.4 feet and the other 9.6 feet. 
* The standards and water extraction algorithms used by the state and regional environmental agencies that Nestlé is following are obsolete.  They date from the early part of the 20th century and do not take into account current water usage, as well as the effects of climate change.  
* Remediation efforts may be necessary to clean up the former industrial and residential waste dump on the Gower Property. 
* Several adjacent property owners have reported increases in sulfur and iron content in their wells since Nestlé dug test wells, but Nestlé has showed no concern.
No mitigation plan has been submitted in the event the nearby stream and residents’ wells run dry.   
Emotions are running high in Eldred.  The cars of opposition leaders have twice been vandalized, and a small improvised explosive device was launched over the property of one leader, destroying some tree limbs.
Nestlé has weathered many scandals over the years as the price of doing business, and in that context its machinations in Eldred are small potatoes. 
The most odiferous of the scandals was in the 1970s when it was revealed Nestlé was getting Third World mothers hooked on its infant formula despite being less healthy and more expensive than breast milk.  It backed down in the face of a boycott of its products — which range from chocolate and confectionery, frozen foods, coffee and dietary supplements to pet foods — and has since turned its attention to promoting bottled water.  
Nestlé has the largest bottled water market share in the world, with revenues of $7.3 billion last year from its Deer Park and other regional U.S. brands, Pure Life, Poland Spring, San Pellegrino and Perrier.  
The company has seven existing bulk water extraction sites in Pennsylvania, and bottlers have quietly pumped from aquifers elsewhere in the Poconos for years to quench the thirst of people where water is a luxury and not taken for granted, or has been contaminated as in Flint, Michigan, forcing people to buy water in bottles that are not biodegradable and add substantially to the enormous waste generated by a throwaway culture.  
The weak and ineffectual Poconos political establishment has long been prey to powerful outside forces like Nestlé.  Environmentalists fear that once the water is gone — and it will run out — an explosion of fracking will occur when the thousands of fracking sites in Pennsylvania counties to the northwest are played out and energy companies turn their attention to the untapped oil and natural gas supplies in the rich shale beds beneath the Poconos' woods and mountain streams.   
That is another battle for another time, but the face-off in Eldred is being watched closely across the country.  There are about 50 communities where Nestlé is planning spring water grabs, according to one national environmental group, while water suddenly is a major topic of discussion in the fallout from the Flint public health disaster.   
The timing is not necessarily auspicious for Nestlé as more and more people learn the Swiss company is making many billions of dollars off of a commodity that most Americans believe should be free, and that is a very good thing.   



Alan Muller said...

This is an important story, touching on the basic absurdity of the bottled water industry, the slimeballism of Nestle, and the ongoing struggle for local control in PA in the face of historically corrupt state politics.

helen B said...

Good information to be read by all! I own property off Kunkletown rd, just what do people think they are going to do when their well's run dry. Dig another? Nope! Growing up, we drank water from hose's, now we need to pay to drink it from a bottle? Wise up everyone! Put your faith in the people who are fighting for us, back them up! We all had better pray that they win this battle with another money grabbing conglomerate!

JD Rockefeller said...

Call me one who does not think water should be free, but rather paid fer at the full cost, which would take thoughtful definition

NiB said...

Horrible. A pox on them all.

Anonymous said...

Sending praise for a well poised article... can't tell you how much I appreciate finding the "diamonds in the rough"members of our community... and I too appreciate what we have in our quaint village, more than I can express...a resident since 1972! Hope I meet you one of these days.

Heidi Ajlani said...

Yes this is great !

I can use this in my classes and all my uni students I come across every semester, I ask them to boycott Nestle, Nescafe and Monsanto , I noticed when I was little traveling the Mid East visiting family all they had was Nestle/Nescafe ads and even at that young age I knew something was wrong about that , they are heavily embedded in this part of the world and MENA, with so many ads, yes they are a part of a big problem!


Heidi Lucken said...

Nestle operated Ice Mountain brand bottled water here in Michigan. The vp of pr for Nestle/Ice Mountain is the wife of the director of the state of Michigan civil service...

Anonymous said...

Hey JD Rockerfeller........ Homeowners HAVE paid for their water through taxes on the property it runs through and the wells they PAID to drill. Water is protected in Pennsylvania. Nestle people are scumbags who have no problem ruining the property values of others for money. Nestle has ruined water in many other areas of America.

Jill Wolfe Fleener said...

They grabbed water in Maine, too. We have been conditioned since we were young children with the jingle spelling Nestle (the very best chocolate milk mix). By using these tactics, they built brand loyalty, but it was a fare. Look up their products like Stouffers frozen entrees. This is a Swiss company with no loyalty to anyone, but their profits. Boycott. We can vote with our dollars.

Swami Satnishan said...

How can somebody tell me they own the Earth's water rights? They we're born unto this Earth, just like the rest of us.