Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Looking Back One Year On: How A Tiny Pennsylvania Township Beat Giant Nestlé

Water has been central to Eldred Township's rich 274-year history.
 That got Nestlé's attention, and then bad stuff started to happen.
We live in the age of the corporatocracy, and it is a strange time indeed.  Corporations have gifted us an astonishing array of goods, from life-saving drugs to phones smarter than we are to the popcorn we microwaved last night, not to mention the microwave oven itself.  But corporations also have been agents for great harm.  Often  more powerful than the governments who are supposed to regulate them, corporations rule our lives in subtle but extraordinarily manipulative ways.  While they can make our lives better, they also are able destroy them.   
Vernon Barlieb, like his forebears, was born and raised in Eldred Township, a 24-square-mile backwater with barely 2,000 residents, free-flowing creeks and verdant gamelands in the rolling picture postcard hills below Blue Mountain on the western edge of the Pennsylvania Poconos. Barlieb, an eighty-something retired farmer with penetrating blue eyes, a quick wit and steel-trap mind, was out taking the morning air one morning in the spring of 2015 when he noticed surveyors pounding stakes adorned with bright orange streamers into the ground uncomfortably close to his property.  On closer inspection, he found that they were on his property.   
Meanwhile, Donna Diehl, another Eldred native, school bus driver and community volunteer who helps run the community food kitchen and is as outspoken as Barlieb is soft spoken, was puttering around in her backyard, which sits across Buckwha Creek from the same property that abuts Barlieb's.  Diehl also noticed the surveyors, who also were on her property.   
Nestlé had come to town.   
The Swiss-owned corporation had stumbled on Eldred almost by accident.  There had been rumors since 2012 that it had its eye on the township because a driver for a small trucking business run by a neighbor of Barlieb and Diehl had gone to work at a Nestlé bottling plant down in the Lehigh Valley, and in conversation with fellow workers had boasted that he knew of a place not far away where there was an ample supply of clean water.  One thing led to another, and those things led to the surveyors, who were the advance troops in the army of engineers, hydrogeologists, public relations people -- and, of course, lawyers -- that Nestlé would dispatch to Eldred a few years later in its unquenchable thirst to find new sources for its immense bottled water business, which with 12 brands in the U.S. and another 40 globally, is the largest in the world.   
Nestlé is cashing in on water on an epic scale because the epidemic of water contamination emergencies in Flint, Michigan and elsewhere has forced people to buy and drink bottled water. In short, the more lead and other contaminants are found in water and the more people become sick from them, the more bottled water Nestlé sells and the more its profits swell. 
Eldred neighbors Donna Diehl (left) and Vernon Barlieb
were the first to notice that there was an unwelcome visitor in town.
A year after Vernon Barlieb and Donna Diehl happened upon those surveyors, Nestlé is literally pulling up stakes and leaving town.   
It is the first time that the corporation has capitulated outright to a community in its North American market, while its only other defeat followed a six-year fight in an Oregon community that seemed to have ended only after the opposition succeeded in getting approval for a ballot question that passed overwhelmingly in an election last month but may be nullified by the county government. 
While Nestlé is beaten if not bowed, and is actively exploring other potential well sites in the region, it leaves behind an extraordinarily bitter legacy that not even the free-flowing waters of the Buckwha will be able to wash away.  Leaders of the community's opposition to Nestlé are broke, some are now in ill health, and they and their families are exhausted from the stress Nestlé's incursion has caused.  The township is near bankruptcy because of legal bills, the housing market has collapsed because of justifiable fears over the damage that Nestlé would do, and lines at the community food kitchen are longer than ever.
Nestlé had submitted an application to the township to sink two bulk extraction wells and pump a minimum of 200,000 gallons a day for its Deer Park Spring Water brand from the aquifier underlying the properties of Barlieb, Diehl and other residents -- several dozen in all -- for enormous profit. Because it would not be buying water, merely leasing private property, its profit could have amounted to upwards of $3 billion over a 10-year period. 
A key to Nestlé's success nationally has been its ability to hot wire the political establishments in smaller communities that are anxious, if not desperate, to attract major corporations although bulk water extraction operations are highly automated and generate very few jobs.   
Despite some under-the-table help, which had been the subject of a property owners' lawsuit led by Diehl, Barlieb and 40 or so other residents, Nestlé never succeeded in co-opting the majority of Eldred politicians and made the ivory tower error of assuming that it was dealing with country bumpkins.   
Eldred's anything-but-bumpkins understood that Nestlé's plans were inconsistent with the goals of the township's comprehensive plan, substantial water tanker truck traffic would destroy roads while creating noise and safety problems, there would be no long-term public benefit while property values and tax revenues would plummet, no jobs would be created, there are toxic dumps on the site that could leech into the water table, while severe restrictions would be placed on residents near the wells. 
And the biggie: The township might eventually be wrung dry because Nestlé would be pumping from an area considerably beyond what it would lease, although it repeatedly and disingenuously claimed otherwise. 
The Nestlé fight attracted global media interest but no support
in the Poconos.  Al Jazeera assigned its U.S. correspondent to the story. 
The victorious Eldred property owners caught a bit of good luck.   
The timing was propitious.  Because of the contamination of the public water supplies in Flint and elsewhere, there is a growing awareness that while water is a vital and irreplaceable resource, the supply is finite and will dry up if not carefully regulated and managed.  This has been one of the bigger stories of the year in the U.S. not containing the words "Donald Trump," and the Eldred battle had begun attracting national and then international attention.   
Good thing, because what was happening in Eldred was kryptonite to the Poconos political establishment, including its state legislative delegation and county politicians, who are slavishly business friendly and would never say or do anything to offend deep pockets like Nestlé.   
While that is not surprising, the hands-off response of regional environmental groups was deeply disappointing.  None so much as offered an encouraging word, and the woman who is perhaps the Poconos' leading environmentalist may as well been speaking for all of them in pointing out with an insousiant hautiness that she couldn't get involved because Nestlé wasn't trying to pump water from the watershed her group monitored.  So there!   
Nestlé, in withdrawing its Eldred application this week, cited "technical reasons."   
Nestlé also understood that the chances the property owners' lawsuit would succeed because of a smorgasbord of procedural violations were good and that its primary expert witness would be eviscerated on cross-examination at a township zoning hearing scheduled for next week because of the shabby site work he had done.  It would have to win both the lawsuit and township approval to move forward.  Meanwhile, the owner of the property where Nestlé would drill its wells was coming around to the conclusion that, figuratively speaking, a lifetime pass to Disney World might not outweigh a lifetime of being a local pariah.   
It also did not help that Nestlé had littered the public record with outright deceits, including willfully misrepresenting  the boundaries of and right-of-way to the well site property, and had blocked a private road without the owner's permission. 
But in the end, it was love of community that defeated Nestlé -- the determination of Diehl, Barlieb and their neighbors, who had attracted their own army to do battle with Nestlé's far more formidable forces -- and a belief that their way of life was too precious to surrender to corporate greed. 
"It is clear to us that the community in Eldred Township does not believe the process around this project worked the way it was intended, and that many of you have concerns about this project," said Nestlé spokesman Eric Andreus in a statement he read at a township meeting this week to hugs, cheers and tears.  "We want you to know that we hear you." 
Indeed.  And that and a buck twenty nine will get you a very small bottle of Deer Park Spring Water.

Eldred pond and Diehl-Barlieb photographs © 2016 Alyssa Meadows


Don said...

Unbelievably, two government employees involved the effort to circumvent ordinances and procedures and welcome Nestle to town, ran in this year's primary election. Former zoning officer Ellerslie Helm for Supervisor and former Planning Commssion secretary Darcy Gannon for Tax Collector. Voters have not forgotten in a mere year what they did or didn't do, and these two brought up the rear in vote tallies. The voters have spoken.

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Unknown said...

The effort that these citizens provided to recreate david and goliath is nothing short of amazingly remarkable. i know first hand Donna stood like a rock in the normality of big corporate policy and strong armed practices generally associated by these billion dollar giants. I take my hat off to her for saving the area's aquifer and area from all the commercial pollution from endless trucking that would of pursued. finally there is justice in the world for principality and doing the right thing, money and power lost this war do to a few people with a relentless pursuit of justice. Hail to these individuals.