MONTPELIER — Groundwater belongs to everyone, right? Think again. On May 23, reps from an as-yet-unchartered corporation requested permission to extract groundwater from East Montpelier and build a pipeline to transport it to Montpelier. There, in an industrial park, they would bottle the water for export. Environmental advocates in Montpelier suggest the deal is being conducted in an underhanded manner. The owner of the prospective business refuses to provide further details.
At the May 23 meeting, “company” president Daniel Antonovich, along with project manager and former Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr, requested preliminary approval for the project from Montpelier’s City Council. Officials temporarily denied the request, suggesting that more permits were needed before going forward.
There are 37 licensed water companies in Vermont. The name “Montpelier Spring Water Company” was reserved three times in 1995 and 1996. But the Secretary of State’s office confirms both that the company has never done business in the state and that no name requests are pending. When reached for comment in New Jersey, Antonovich said it was “too premature” to give any specifics about either his business or the Montpelier proposal. Kerr, who was on vacation in Nova Scotia, could not be reached for comment.
Bottled water, the world’s fastest-growing beverage, is big business. Global consumption of the stuff more than doubled between 1997 and 2005. The U.S. consumes more bottled water than any other country. In 2005, Americans guzzled 7.5 billion gallons of it, for an industry profit of more than $10 billion. In states such as California, Michigan and Maine, citizen groups are standing up to major corporations such as the Nestlé-owned Poland Spring Company to demand compensation and regulation for water-extraction schemes.
If incorporated, Antonovich’s company would be considerably smaller than Poland Spring. Still, Vermont Natural Resources Council Water Program Director Jon Groveman believes not enough information is available to determine whether the project will be environmentally sound. Groveman, a seasoned water-rights advocate, speculates, “If the withdrawal rates are what we’ve calculated them to be — half a million gallons per day — then that’s very concerning to us.” He adds that his organization is “actively seeking more information about the proposal.”
Groveman says Vermont — at least compared with neighboring states — has relatively weak groundwater protection policies. The state has never conducted a comprehensive mapping project for groundwater. Last year, a legislative bill did establish an interim groundwater-removal permitting process. It also established a governor’s committee to study groundwater regulation. In 2007, Vermont earmarked more than $300,000 for a comprehensive groundwater-mapping project. Another bill, which would have enacted a “public trust” to protect Vermont’s natural resources, floundered in committee. And, according to Groveman, Governor Douglas refused to appoint a water activist to sit on his committee — a sign, the advocate suggests, of the governor’s disinterest in the issue.
Montpelier Director of Planning and Community Development Gwen Hallsmith attended the May 23 meeting. She reports that her colleagues and constituents have “mixed feelings” about Antonovich’s proposal. Hallsmith says she’s conscious of environmental concerns, but points out that the bottling operation would add about 120 new jobs to Montpelier’s economy. “I think that people are concerned about the privatization and commercialization of water, so that’s a worry,” she says. “But on the other hand . . . it’s a pipeline down to our industrial park bottling healthy, clean water. As an industrial activity that provides jobs? That’s pretty low impact, from the point of view of industry.”
Before it can operate, the project will need to secure permits from both the state Agency of Natural Resources and the Montpelier Public Works Department. But Antonovich requested neither a public works nor an ANR “source water” permit before approaching the Montpelier City Council. Hallsmith says that if she had known Antonovich didn’t have the permits, she wouldn’t have referred him to the council in the first place.
Why did Antonovich and Kerr bring their proposal to municipal officials without first getting the necessary approval? Hallsmith suggests they merely “misunderstood” the “magnitude” of the permitting process. But Matt Levin, a spokesman for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, cries foul. He suggests that Antonovich and Kerr — who has previously been at odds with grassroots Vermont environmental organizations — deliberately gave the impression at the meeting that they’d already obtained permits, in order to boost potential-investor confidence.
Levin says he’s not sure how much bearing Montpelier Spring Water Company’s corporate charter has on the current proposal. What’s important, he says, is making sure laws are followed. “The permitting process for this kind of project is appropriately significant,” he stresses. “It seems that the people who are working on this project are trying to make it look simpler than it is.”