Water debate heated

May 24, 2007

By Patrick Joy Times Argus Staff

MONTPELIER — A request from a fledgling water company for city council approval to work in the city's right-of-way erupted Wednesday into a two-hour, sometimes heated, discussion of water commercialization, state and local permits and jurisdiction and the potential environmental impact of the project.

The company, Montpelier Spring Water Company, is proposing to harness a spring on North Street and pump the water through East Montpelier to a processing plant it wants to build in the industrial zone at the bottom of Gallison Hill in the city.

Project manager for the company and former Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr said the company hopes to begin construction by next spring, but acknowledged the permitting processes may delay that start.

Project proponents hailed the effort as a way to increase the tax base of the city, provide up to 120 jobs and utilize a natural resource while having little impact on the environment. Environmental advocates at the meeting said the project left many unanswered questions and cautioned the council to move slowly and avoid action without more details.

The council decided not to approve the company's specific request Wednesday, instead offering the company a letter describing the city's process for dealing with right of way requests. Approval of actual work within the right of way, council members said, could not be given without the assessment of the public works department.

The lengthy discussion detoured widely from the question initially before the council, as members wondered aloud whether approval might signify endoresment of the project. Environmental advocates and project proponents, meanwhile, debated state laws and the merits of exporting the city's water.

The issue became even more murky when Kerr acknowledged that the company had not yet secured any state permits for the project. Montpelier Planning Director Gwen Hallsmith said Kerr and Montpelier Spring Water Company President Daniel Antonovich told her that all of the necessary permits had already been acquired.

Kerr said his company is attempting to follow the rules and said he was worried that environmental advocates were simply attempting to stall the process.

"You know, this is why I quit my job (as Agriculture Secretary)," he said. "No matter how much you follow the rules, there are people that are going to throw a wrench into the gears."

Kerr said the project would be minimally invasive and avoid the noise and impact of trucking water that has strained community relations at Randolph's Vermont Pure bottled water operation. Kerr said the company would install a four-inch pipe from the site about three miles up North Street near the Sparrow farm and route it through East Montpelier to the plant. Three routes are being considered - one near Barnes Road and down Brazier Road, another cutting across private land and a third near Bliss Road. The pipe would be buried about four feet under the ground and would not need to be replaced for 100 years.

Matt Levin, spokesperson for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, questioned the extent of the environmental impact and said his organization opposed bottling and exporting Vermont's water.

"There are large questions about water as a community resource and one that cannot be owned, bought and sold," he said.

Vermont Natural Resources spokesperson Jake Brown said many questions have to be answered before his organization can assess the proposal.

"There are a lot of unresolved issues here," he said. "This whole issue (of groundwater) is legally unsettled. VNRC is not opposed to this project, but there are a lot of unsettled questions that we need more detail on."

Kerr said his company will now begin permitting work with the state. He said hydrological studies have already been done and would likely require the company to allow about 20 percent of the spring's water to continue to flow into the North Branch of the Winooski.

While several council members expressed reservations about the impact of the project and others expressed support for its potential economic contribution, Mayor Mary Hooper said the issues before the city are limited to site plan review of the bottling plant and whether to allow the company to work on and under the city's right of way.

"On the one hand I'm thrilled with a business that would bring 120 jobs and locate in an industrial zone," she said. "On the other hand the use of water resources and the removal of water out of one watershed and putting it somewhere else is a huge issue. But, we don't have jurisdiction over that."