BROWNFIELD, Maine — Town officials and members of the Brownfield Concerned Citizens took questions last Tuesday in preparation for a vote to be held on instituting a tougher water extraction ordinance.
The town will hold a special town meeting and vote Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. at the Brownfield Community Center at 90 Main St. to decide on the ordinance.
Over 60 people attended the Aug. 6 standing-room-only hearing.
The proposed ordinance would replace one from 2004. Residents have been working to update it since 2016.
Both ordinances are aimed at protecting the Ward’s Brook Aquifer, which Brownfield shares with Denmark and Fryeburg.
“It has gone through several years of lawyers’ hands, several planning board chairs, several committee members, so this is what has been brought forward,” said Selectman Erik Walker.
Drummond Woodsum law firm of Portland, Maine, was involved in reviewing the ordinance.
Walker confirmed that the 180-day moratorium on adding more water extractors has expired. He said he will push to hold the vote via secret ballot in order to have a record of the decision.
Bruce Collins, co-author of the 2004 ordinance and a former planning board chair, asked why no water extraction fee amount was given in the ordinance.
Planning Board Chair Sonia Frye said fees will be recommended by the planning board to selectmen, and selectmen will determine the amount.
Walker added that determining a fee before the ordinance is approved would be “putting the cart ahead of the horse.”
Selectman William Flynn said the fee won’t be a secret and the public will know at the appropriate time.
Vincent Pestilli asked if the 20,000-gallon-per-day extraction limit set by the proposed ordinance was intended to pre-empt any water from being extracted in the town.
“It sounds like they put in an awful lot of conditions on it,” said Pestilli. He also asked if the selectmen could negotiate with a water company for revenue, adding, “Payment could be used for maybe holding our tax rate down or some other community cause.”
Pestilli, a Brownfield resident, said he’d heard towns like Hollis and Denmark, Maine, generate money from water extraction by Nestle.
Planning Board member Deb Merrill said the 20,000 gallons a day allows most companies to operate, but “does it rule out Nestle? Yes.”
Porter, Maine, Planning Board Chair Daniel Davis said Denmark makes only .0008 cents per gallon, and Nestle then turns around and sells a gallon of water for $2-$2.50.
Poland Spring, which is owned by Nestle, extracts water from Denmark and Fryeburg but currently has no operations in Brownfield.
Collins also worried whether the ordinance would be open to litigation and who would monitor the wells. “Other municipalities have hired independent third-parties, why don’’t we?” asked Collins. “That’s like the fox watching the chicken coop.”
Merrill said according to the ordinance, the extractor will put money into an escrow account, $2,500 for small-scale operations and $5,000 for large-scale, that pays for an independent town-hired hydrologist to verify the well.
“Everything will be shut down if they don’t bring it back up to the $5,000 or $2,500 amount,” he added.
Walker said Poland Springs has the money to litigate the ordinance, and “if they know they can win, they’re going to make sure they can pump enough out to pay themselves back in the long run and bankrupt the town.”
But he said multiple legal teams reviewed the new ordinance and signed off on it holding up in court.
Brownfield Concerned Citizens member Jamie Riel said the 20,000-gallon limit was reached due to “road damage and truck traffic” data from peer-reviewed research, Maine DOT information and cumulative impact.
Extraction activities have “a huge impact on infrastructure” because the average Brownfield road is rated for 25,000 pounds and the average water truck weighs 100,000 pounds, he said.
In a chart provided by the Brownfield Concerned Citizens, the proposed water extraction ordinance requires annual permit review and approval. The proposed ordinance transfers this responsibility from the code enforcement to the planning board.
It has an extraction cap of 20,000 gallons per day and provides permits for “small-scale extractions” of 2,000-9,999 gallons per day and “large-scale extractions” of 10,000-20,000 per day.
Large extractions must “cease and desist from pumping if groundwater level drops 3 inches or more in monitoring wells and may resume at 2 inches.”
The proposed ordinance also imposes extraction and truck traffic hours of 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Davis said his town also is taking a second look at its own water ordinance. “I think it’s very reasonable; I will propose it in my town,” he said.
“Maine’s laws are so old and our government is so inept that we are ripe to be stolen from and made to look like fools,” he said.
Brownfield resident Chris Well said Maine and the White Mountains are sitting on the finest water in the world. “Why in God’s name we are giving it to Nestle, one of the third- or fourth-largest corporations in the world, for nothing blows my mind,” said Well, in a statement that was met with applause by the room.
If the town votes down the new ordinance proposal, the 2004 ordinance would remain in effect.
Selectmen confirmed that the new ordinance is not in response to any new permits, and no new permits have been submitted.
Walker told the audience to call, email or mail state lawmakers with concern to water extraction. “If we can override then this problem will work itself out in the future.”
The 27-page ordinance can be viewed at brownfieldmaine.org.