Utility regulators to weigh in on Poland Spring proposal

Poland Spring hopes to pump up to 172 million gallons of water a year from a public water district well that once served a now-closed paper mill.

Several small communities had hoped to be in the running to host the company's planned $50 million bottling plant proposed for western Maine, but one of the nation's largest bottled water brands, manufactured by a subsidiary of Nestle Waters, also sees an opportunity with Lincoln Water District following the closing of a Lincoln Paper & Tissue mill.

"With the loss of five paper mills in three years, the region is hungry for making positive change in the economy," said Thomas Brennan, senior natural resource manager for Nestle Waters North America.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday is set to discuss a permit application filed by Nestle Waters to withdraw municipal water from Lincoln Water District. The plan will receive further scrutiny from environmental, transportation and drinking water regulators.

Maine law says such permits are allowed only if water transport won't threaten public health, safety or welfare. Poland Spring's purchase of the water also can't harm the state's waters, natural resources and uses of water like public or private wells.

Lincoln Water District Superintendent Jeffrey Day told regulators the proposed withdrawal by Poland Spring is not expected to harm the district's public water system. He said the shuttered Lincoln mill, where 128 workers were laid off, drew about 174 million gallons of water from the well in 2011.

"The closure of LP&T's mill has left the district with substantial reserve capacity," Day told regulators in a recent letter.

This wouldn't be the first time Poland Spring has tapped into a municipal supply. Earlier this year, Maine's supreme court upheld regulatory approval of a contract allowing Fryeburg Water Co. to sell water to the parent company of Poland Spring.

Under the latest proposal, Poland Spring has been in talks with the Lincoln Water District and the surrounding community about plans to buy the water, pay a lease rate to access to property, build a new loading station and improve rail train service. Poland Spring wants to convey water that may undergo filtration or ultraviolet processes from the Lincoln Water District well to the new loading station in Lincoln through an underground pipeline.

From there, the company expects about 100 tanker truck site visits per day as it transports water to its bottling facilities in Poland, Hollis and elsewhere. In western Maine, Brennan said the company is also finalizing a water-extraction agreement with the Rumford Water District.

A location for a new bottling plant hasn't been finalized, Brennan said.

The company's bottling efforts have in past years received opposition from some local groups. The Protect Rumford Water Alliance spoke out against the Rumford contract with Poland Springs, with concerns that the deal didn't protect residents and local water supplies.

Brennan said the company is used to being a "lightning rod" for such activist groups. He said the company focuses on being prepared to discuss its sustainable water practices.

"And when we're allowed to have that discussion," he said, "those concerns go away."