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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Millions of gallons of pure spring water are at the center of a dispute in the town of New Haven, Wisconsin. The international bottler, Perrier, wants to build a plant in the town. But local residents wonder if the water Perrier would tap would damage the local aquifer. So some folks want the company to drop its plans. But Perrier says it won't leave unless scientific studies prove its operations would cause environmental damage. Gil Halsted reports.

(Running water)

HALSTED : Picture this: By an old mill pond, down a rural road, a tiny well sits under a red-pitched roof. Clear, cold water pours out of a pipe into a metal can. Local residents are fighting a plan to pump 500 gallons a minute from the aquifer that feeds the spring this rustic well depends on. Perrier already has a conditional permit to drill 200 feet into the aquifer and install a high-capacity pump. The pump would run year round, filling plastic bottles bearing the Ice Mountain Spring Water label.

(Sucking sound)

HALSTED : That's the sound of a high-powered diesel pump sucking a thousand gallons a minute from the aquifer beneath New Haven. In November, the company ran a test using a rate twice what the bottling plant would need for normal operations so they could learn more about the hydrogeology of the region. Hydrogeologist Bob Nauta conducted that test for the company.

NAUTA: You're stressing the aquifer to make it have some impacts. We use those impacts to calculate aquifer properties, things like its permeability, its ability to transmit water, but also its ability to store water. And then that information will be used for the groundwater modeling that will continue after this is done.

HALSTED : Results of the modeling are due later this month and should predict whether extracting the water will pose a significant environmental threat. The flow of one local stream dropped by 45 percent during the test, making it dangerously shallow in an area crucial for trout spawning. But the company says the test was meant to stress the aquifer and didn't damage it permanently. Bob Nauta says there are 150 billions gallons of water in the local aquifer. Perrier spokesperson Jane Lazgin says the scientific studies Perrier has carried out should convince opponents the bottling plant won't harm the aquifer.

LAZGIN: We've done our level best and we've gone to every length to satisfy people's questions about the environment and we continue to do that.

HALSTED : Sales of bottled water have tripled nationwide in the past decade. And Lazgin says Perrier needs to plants in the Midwest to fuel that growing demand.

LAZGIN: People are rediscovering water again. It basically quenches one's thirst in the most simple and basic and best of ways.

HALSTED: Bottled spring water is a 5 billion dollar a year industry in the United States and Perrier controls a little less than a third of the U.S. market. The company sells water under the labels Deer Park, Poland Spring, and Calistoga, in addition to Ice Mountain, and operates bottling plants in Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida and Maine. But Perrier's plans for a Midwest expansion have met with strong opposition. Last spring, local citizens and fishing groups blocked a plan to build a plant near the headwaters of one of the state's most popular trout streams, near Mecan Springs, about 30 miles southwest of New Haven. And when the company began drilling test wells near the spring in New Haven, local residents held a series of protest rallies.

PROTESTER: And let's join hands and let's chase Perrier out with "Keep the water in the country." Come on! (sings) "Keep the water in the country." (singing fades under)

HALSTED: In a meeting last June, Perrier went to great lengths to assure residents that the company's high capacity wells would not dry up their wells or damage streams or wetlands. But local residents, like Mike Flannery, weren't convinced.

FLANNERY: When they start sucking water out of that hole, it's going to pull water from other areas towards that area. I mean, we got enough water coming out of the ground right now. They're spraying it on the potato fields all over the place but it's getting back in the system. This water they're taking out of here is going to go in a truck. There ain't no way it's ever going to get back into our ground. I'll never drink it.

HALSTED: Flannery fears Perrier's pumping could cause permanent damage to the aquifer and eventually lead to water rationing. Other local residents oppose the plant because of the round-the-clock truck traffic it will bring to, what is now, a quiet farming community. One study predicts there will be two hundred trucks going to and from the bottling plant once it begins operating. In a local referendum, voters rejected Perrier's plans in New Haven by an overwhelming majority. A citizen's group has filed a lawsuit calling for an injunction against Perrier for violating local zoning laws. Another citizen's group has filed a suit calling for more comprehensive environmental studies before the plant is built. But there are some in the area who would welcome the new industry. Perrier has offered to buy Terri Anderson's hog farms as a site for the bottling plant. As a result, Anderson says he's had threatening phone calls from neighbors and some minor vandalism on his property. Still, he insists the bottling plant would be good for the entire community.

ANDERSON: It's a clean industry and we need progress here. We're one of the poorest counties in the state. There's so much water there, and the quality that, even if Perrier backed out, whoever's number two will be there in the blink of an eye.

HALSTED: There's a bill now in the state legislature that would require an environmental impact statement for future high-capacity wells used by water bottling plants. The bill has strong bipartisan support and may come up for a vote by the end of March, just about the same time Perrier is expected to release results of the computer modeling on its pump tests. Meanwhile, Perrier is fighting a similar battle with citizens' groups in Michigan over proposed bottling plants there. For Living on Earth, I'm Gil Halsted in New Haven, Wisconsin.

CURWOOD: Just ahead, crime but no punishment, so far. The attackers of the giant redwood Luna are still at large. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental business update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

(Music up and under)



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