Inside Poland Spring’s Hidden Attack on Water Rules It Didn’t Like

By Hiroko Tabuchi  |  Oct. 24, 2023  |  New York Times

When Maine lawmakers tried to rein in large-scale access to the state’s freshwater this year, the effort initially gained momentum. The state had just emerged from drought, and many Mainers were sympathetic to protecting their snow-fed lakes and streams.

Then a Wall Street-backed giant called BlueTriton stepped in.

BlueTriton isn’t a household name, but its products are. Americans today buy more bottled water than any other packaged drink, and BlueTriton owns many of the nation’s biggest brands, including Poland Spring, named after a natural spring in Maine that ran dry decades ago.

Maine’s bill threatened BlueTriton’s access to the groundwater it bottles and sells. The legislation had already gotten a majority vote on the committee and was headed toward the full Legislature, when a lobbyist for BlueTriton proposed an amendment that would gut the entire bill.

“Strike everything,” starts the proposed amendment, which was written in a Word document that contained a digital signature showing that it had been created by Elizabeth M. Frazier, who represents BlueTriton and is one of the most influential lobbyists in Maine. The document was e-mailed by Ms. Frazier to lawmakers in the days after the committee vote.

After BlueTriton’s intervention, the committee pulled the bill back. The company’s actions, which haven’t previously been reported, were described to The New York Times by three state legislators. The Times also reviewed several of the e-mails sent by Ms. Frazier as well as the Word document.

“We couldn’t believe it. Their amendment strikes the entire bill,” said Christopher Kessler, a Democratic state representative who represents South Portland and a committee member who voted to advance the bill. “Because all this happened behind closed doors, the public doesn’t know that Poland Spring stalled the process.”

His panel, the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, plans to meet on Wednesday to discuss the fate of the bill.

Bottlers have faced increasing scrutiny for the millions of throwaway plastic bottles they produce, the marketing message that their products are safer or healthier than tap water, and for a business model in which they buy freshwater, often at low cost, only to sell it back to the public at much higher prices.

And while the bottled-water business doesn’t use nearly as much groundwater as the nation’s thirstiest industries, like agriculture, the pressure on bottlers is building as awareness grows of the stress that intensive pumping can place on local water supplies. A Times investigation this year revealed that many of the aquifers that supply 90 percent of the nation’s water systems are being severely depleted as overuse and global warming transform fragile ecosystems.

BlueTriton has been caught up in issues of local opposition and water use, and not only in Maine. The company also is fighting for access to water sources in numerous states, including Michigan, Colorado and others.

In response to detailed questions, BlueTriton on Monday pointed The Times to a new page on its corporate website. “After thoughtful consideration, BlueTriton opposes the proposed legislation,” the page says, because the bill “would make it unaffordable for any large-scale water purchaser, including Poland Spring, to invest in infrastructure and operations.”

Ms. Frazier didn’t respond to detailed questions.

Groundwater use is regulated by states, not the federal government, which means there is little national coordination, monitoring or management of a vital natural resource. Maine’s bill seeks, among other things, to put a seven-year limit on contracts for large-scale freshwater pumping by corporations that ship water out of Maine, and to make the deals subject to local approval. That would block BlueTriton’s current efforts to lock in contracts up to 45 years long for pumping water.

“We couldn’t believe it,” State Representative Christopher Kessler said of the lobbying effort.

Industries and other interest groups routinely try to influence lawmaking, and there has been no suggestion that Ms. Frazier violated any rules. But it seemed “unusual procedurally” for a corporation to propose rewriting an entire bill after it had already advanced within the Legislature, said Anthony Moffa, associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law.

State senator Mark Lawrence, a Democrat who heads the committee considering the bill, said the committee would consider amendments proposed by any interested person or party. In Maine, “a lot of the legislation that’s proposed is written by lobbyists, companies, different people like that,” he said.

Mr. Lawrence also said that, at the same time the amendment was proposed, several members had begun to express fresh concerns that the State Legislature would be setting overly stringent curbs on contracts.

Water Clashes Nationwide

BlueTriton finds itself pitted against local water boards, environmentalists and other groups across the country.

In Colorado, environmental groups have been battling a 10-year contract that BlueTriton renewed with a semi-arid county to pump water from the Upper Arkansas River Basin, a region affected by historic drought.

In California, BlueTriton has publicly criticized and vowed to fight a cease-and-desist order issued by the state’s water board to stop diverting millions of gallons of water from a spring in San Bernardino County.

In Michigan, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would close a loophole that enables BlueTriton and other commercial water users to pump water from the protected Great Lakes watershed. Known as the “bottled-water loophole,” it allows for water to be used this way if it’s in containers that are 5.7 gallons or less.

On its new corporate page, BlueTriton said “there is no evidence of adverse impacts to the aquifer” in Colorado, and that California’s ruling “negatively impacts every water agency and farmer in California that relies on groundwater, and in doing so, indirectly harms every Californian.”

BlueTriton is a major presence in Maine, drawing water from eight locations around the state. It is currently trying to lock in a new contract of up to 45 years to pump water in Lincoln a former mill town.

That would be BlueTriton’s second decades-long contract in the state, the kind of deals that would run afoul of the State Legislature’s proposed seven-year cap. The company’s pursuit of these deals, and the uncertainties of how climate change may affect Maine’s water supplies in the future, is what inspired the legislation, said Margaret M. O’Neil, the Democratic state legislator who introduced the bill.

“We’re seeing our communities get locked into these contracts that are going to last, basically, the rest of my lifetime,” which is too risky, she said, considering climate uncertainties.

In Lincoln, BlueTriton said, the local water district had the right to reduce or suspend sales to Poland Spring to ensure service to customers.

In 2016-17 and in 2020-22, Maine experienced significant drought, followed by wet years. The state has also started seeing what scientists call “snow drought.” As winters warm because of climate change, snowpack and groundwater recharge can dwindle.

John Mullaney, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s New England Water Science Center, said that a warming climate meant Maine was likely to experience more variability, with stronger rains but also worsening drought. “The question is, what will we be able to do in 50 years,” he said. “There might be changes that need to be made, including reducing groundwater extraction.”

Industry groups emphasize that Maine still has ample groundwater and that bottled water accounts for only a small portion of its use compared to practices like irrigation. They also stress bottled water’s value in emergencies when drinking water is disrupted.

And in Maine, BlueTriton has a powerful local ally: local water utilities, which say the revenue generated by selling water to bottlers helps keep costs down for everyone else.

“Turning away a customer that’s seeking to pay money to the utility because of an alleged problem with extraction would be contrary” to ratepayers’ interests, said Roger Crouse, a board member at the Maine Water Utilities Association. “If they have a contract that could be expiring in seven years, and the math doesn’t work out, they’re going to have to invest their money somewhere else.”

Still, hydrologists warn that bottled water should not be discounted as an additional strain on aquifers and watersheds, as well as on residential wells. Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey began its first-ever study of how the activities of the bottled water industry result in changes to groundwater levels, spring flows and water quality. “Withdrawals, no matter what the use, influence movement of groundwater,” Cheryl Dieter, a hydrologist who is leading the study, said in an interview.

The Rise of BlueTriton

BlueTriton is only the latest steward of a brand that dates back more than 150 years.

Poland Spring water was first packaged as a local elixir in the mid-1800s. It bubbled from the ground, and was bottled by the proprietors of a Maine inn.

Today, it embodies a different era.

The original spring has long since gone dry and is now encased behind glass in a mausoleum-like structure tucked behind a golf course. But BlueTriton now pumps freshwater from other locations in Maine, the bulk of it shipped out of the state under the Poland Spring label. New York is a major market.

BlueTriton itself is a creation of Wall Street. It is owned by the private equity funds One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos and Co., which paid $4.3 billion in 2021 to buy Nestlé’s North American bottled-water business.

Metropolous grabbed national attention in 2013 when it acquired Hostess, the struggling maker of Twinkies. It turned around the popular sponge cake and sold the company a few years later for a gain of more than $2 billion after slashing costs and jobs.

Private equity firms often look for such deals, involving undervalued or distressed businesses that they can buy using borrowed money and then turn around. The purchase of Nestlé’s bottled-water businesses had some of these elements.

Nestlé said at the time that it was selling because of increasing competition from lower-cost rivals, as well as environmental concerns such as difficulty reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Companies like Nestlé also faced risks to their reputation because of all the plastic waste created by disposable water bottles, which often don’t get recycled.

The company’s private equity roots have raised concerns. In March, the credit rating company Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the BlueTriton’s debt rating, citing its high debt load.

If and when BlueTriton is sold off by its investors, the county’s water could end up being controlled by “a revolving door of owners,” said John McGowan, a sustainable investing adviser in Chaffee County, Colorado, and member of a group that has been advocating for stricter curbs on the company, which pumps groundwater there.

In Maine, some neighbors of BlueTriton, like Natalie DiPentino, are skeptical of the company for more personal reasons.

Ms. DiPentino, who lives near Lincoln, can’t prove it but wonders if pumping by Poland Spring contributed to a crisis in her home during a drought in 2017, when her well ran dry along with those of several neighbors. Her family had to haul buckets of river water to flush the toilet, she said. Stores nearby ran out of bottled water.

After learning about BlueTriton’s proposed 45-year contract at its Lincoln facility, she led calls for a public hearing, arguing that deals were being cut behind closed doors and that Poland Spring would be paying too little, $15,000 a month, for millions of gallons of water. “You don’t know how badly you need water until you don’t have it in your house,” she said.

The hearing she sought is now scheduled for next month.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 24, 2023, edition of the New York Times, and is the fifth story in a series on the causes and consequences of disappearing water.