Bottled water is more popular than ever — last year, for the first time, sales surpassed those of soda. That thirst is boosting sales of Poland Spring, Maine’s best known brand and the fourth leading brand in the country.
The company is now looking to expand production in Maine, but its strategy continues to be met with resistance from some local residents and critics.
The supposed magical healing properties of Poland Spring date back more than 200 years, when company founder Hiram Ricker claimed it had cured him of what is now known as acid reflux. Word spread, and by the early 1900s visitors from all over the world flocked to the woods of Maine to take in the waters.
This is where it all began. Originally this was in the middle of the woods,” says Community Relations Manager Heather Printup, standing in the small building that contains the original spring and not far from the company’s bottling plant in Poland.
These days Poland Spring water is transported as far away as Pennsylvania and consumed mostly from half liter bottles throughout the Northeast. It’s especially popular in the region’s two largest cities, where sales are tracked at the cash register.
“We’re the No. 1 scanned SKU above cigarettes, above toilet paper, in New York and Boston,” Printup says.
To keep up with growing demand for its product, over the past 15 years, Poland Spring opened two additional bottling plants in Hollis and Kingfield. It also has nine springs in six counties from which to draw water.
To avoid putting too much pressure on any one source and to adhere to a commitment of sustainability, company geologist Mark DuBois says Poland Spring and its parent company, Nestle Waters North America, need additional springs and bottling plants.
“In Rumford, Fryeburg, in the Penobscot River valley, we’re looking for water but we’re also looking for factory locations where we could build bottling lines in the building,” he says. “When you look 5-10 years out, the potential for more than one is pretty good if the trend continues.”
DuBois says when he first started with the company in 2004, there were 550 employees. Now there are nearly 900, making Poland Spring the 5th largest manufacturer in the state.
Some residents welcome the idea of replacing vanishing paper mill jobs with work like this. The average wage is $20 an hour and includes a full range of benefits.
Others remain skeptical that Poland Spring has their best interests at heart.
“My biggest concern is connecting ourselves with an international corporation. It’s just too much,” says Cliff Harding, a roofing contractor from Rumford, where the company wants to tap into another spring in the Ellis River aquifer.
Harding turned out for a public meeting in April organized by a group called Protect Rumford Water.
“I think there is a way to harvest water, but to do it with such a large corporation is absolutely, in my opinion, it’s not adequate,” he says.
Not adequate, Harding says, in terms of protecting local interests.
Residents will decide Tuesday whether they want to support a groundwater extraction ordinance that gives the town of Rumford control of Poland Spring’s permitting process. It’s similar to what the towns of Kingfield and Denmark have in place.
But there’s concern from Harding and others that the ordinance doesn’t go far enough. Poland Spring supports it.
“We think local control is best so we’re actually supporting this ordinance even though it adds an extra layer of permitting for us and extra task that we have to do,” DuBois says.
Mitzi Sequoia of Rumford and others say they worry that their local water district has rushed to embrace a deal with Poland Spring because revenue is desperately needed to replace aging infrastructure and because the water district is in debt.
“And if they had told us they had an issue with money and with funding for the infrastructure, if they had come to the citizens, we would have found a way collectively, as a community, to help them solve their problem, and this is what really offends me to no end,” she says.
In March, at a special town meeting, residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of a 180-day moratorium on large-scale water extraction projects. But the vote didn’t prevent the water district from negotiating terms of a 15-year agreement with Poland Spring.
The company would pay Rumford about $400,000 annually to withdraw as much as 150 million gallons a year. DuBois says that will put the town on par with water consumed during peak employment at the mill, when more people lived and worked in town.
He says wells will be closely monitored and pumping stopped, if necessary. Critics, like Nickie Sekera, are skeptical.
“I think we have to remember that the corporation’s No. 1 job is increase profits. Not sustainability. Not to protect our resources. That is our job,” she says.
Sekera is a member of the Fryeburg Water District who says Maine lacks adequate groundwater protection laws. She has become a watchdog for water resources and has worked with local residents to oppose Poland Spring withdrawal operations in Fryeburg and Denmark.
At the April meeting, Sekera advised residents to demand transparency from Rumford officials as they consider a final deal for their water.