Published Date Written by Erik EiseleBy Erik Eisele
CONWAY — Maine officials declared regulators needed to take a closer look at the proposed deal between Nestle and the Fryeburg Water Company before the agreement can take effect.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission took minutes to address the issue at its meeting on Thursday, where commission voted to investigate the proposal.
One commissioner with extensive ties to Poland Springs and Nestle opted to recuse himself from the vote, but the commission chair, who formerly worked as an attorney for Nestle, did take part in the decision, voting along with the third commissioner to open the inquiry.
The deal, which would solidify the relationship between the two companies for at least the next 25 and possibly the next 45 years, needed cursory PUC review to go into effect, but the Fryeburg Water Company had hoped it could pass without a formal investigation. The company was, however, prepared for the possibility that regulators could require a more indepth look.
"While FWC believes, consistent with the commission's prior statements, that no commission approval is required," Fryeburg Water Company's attorney Peter Hastings said in a filing to state regulators, "the company is confident that any additional process will confirm that the agreement is in the best interest of FWC's customers."
The renewed discussion of Nestle's involvement in Fryeburg, however, has provoked a public outcry. More than 50 people, many from outside of Fryeburg, sent comments into the PUC, most of them critical of Nestle and the agreement. The proposal stoked frustrations among many about the perceived theft of Fryeburg's natural resources, and Hastings, in his filing, addressed those perceptions directly: "Many of the public comments raise concerns that are unrelated to the agreement," he said, "and in some cases are outside of the commission's jurisdiction."
The Office of the Public Advocate, however, raised a number of concerns in its own filing, including what impact the long-term agreement would have on the rates the other customers of the Fryeburg Water Company pay. The commission needs to determine whether the revenue from the proposed agreement will be sufficient to maintain rates at reasonable levels, attorney Bill Black said in the filing. "At present, the commission does not have sufficient information and data to make that determination."
Today's decision by the commissioners indicates regulators will take look into that question, as well as others.
Fryeburg Water Company, meanwhile, implored the commission to limit the inquiry.
"Should the commission conclude that further proceedings are necessary," Hastings said, "the company respectfully requests that the scope of any such proceeding be appropriately confined to the agreement itself and the impact of the agreement on FWC and its customers."
The formal order on the decision, along with an added statement from chair Thomas Welch, should be public within days, according to state officials involved in the hearings. The meeting itself was supposed to be recorded and available on the PUC's website, but technical difficulties rendered the recording useless.