It’s been a surprisingly long road for Nestle Waters of North America’s Chaffee County water extraction project; an easy approval seemed to be in cards for the multinational before citizen opposition appeared seemingly out of nowhere (as did a local blog dedicated to the issue).
At the urging of residents, the county hired their own independent consultants to look at the project, and – unsurprisingly – discovered many instances where Nestle’s stated economic benefits to the community were wrong or grossly overstated (we’re shocked, shocked!).
Now, with the last marathon public meeting fading away into history, it’s up to the County Commissioners to decide the fate of the project – even though many of the questions about the project remain unanswered:
On Thursday, May 21, The Chaffee County Commissioners endured the fourth and last round of marathon hearings on the Nestlé Waters North America applications for a 1041 and Special Land Use Permits. The eleven-hour meeting was peppered with the now commonplace disputes between Nestlé Water’s Regional Manager, Bruce Lauerman, and the County’s Staff, Consultants, and residents.
Nestlé did make a move to soothe widespread outcry over the project by voluntarily agreeing to remove the Bighorn site and its proposed operations from the permit (as Special Water Council, Jim Culichia, previously recommended) as well as a written guarantee of their willingness to place a conservation easement on parts of the project.
Many residents have expressed distrust over Nestlé’s unwillingness to guarantee project incentives on paper, in addition to what many perceive as a lack of transparency on behalf of the Swiss-based company.
Lauerman’s team of well-dressed and well-spoken attorneys, consultants, and public relations representatives, were by turn, respectful, direct, aggressive, and dismissive at Thursday’s meeting. One Nestlé attorney, Steve Simms, spoke with a tempered belligerence regarding a recommendation by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservation District Manager (UAWCD) Terry Scanga.
This might have been the first Nestle project where Nestle’s conduct in other small towns became an issue right at the start, and remained in the forefront throughout the process. In fact, it was enough of an issue that the normally unflappable Nestle – which usually ignores that which it finds inconvenient to acknowledge – was forced to confront the issue head on.
Unfortunately for Nestle, citizen journalism seems to have taken root in the area, with the Salida Citizen and the Ark Valley Voice (online, citizen-run news sites) providing running commentary and reportage that simply wasn’t available in the local newspaper.
Nestle was even forced to quickdraw their checkbook when it became apparent there were few lasting economic benefits to the county, making noises about ponying up an additional $500,000 “endownment” which would benefit local nonprofits.
It’s not unusual for Nestle to throw a few thousand dollars around a small community in an attempt to silence criticism; it’s quite another for them to be forced to do so by a citizenry that suddenly realizes Nestle isn’t doing anyone in the county any favors.
Still, the endowment would leave town when Nestle did, and the “benefits’ to the area’s nonprofits are put into perspective in an article from the Ark Valley Voice, which includes the following point/counterpoint:
Nestlé: Chaffee County would be the beneficiary of an endowment in the amount of $500,000. This fund would promote educational opportunities, and give $25,000-$30,000 to local organizations and events.
Opposition: This is just a gimmick. While $500,000 may sound like a lot, the benefits accrued don’t really add up. Minus costs, the annual payout would be closer to 12,000-$15,000. Locally based charities have raised significantly more in a single year and will continue to do so. Additionally, the fund will leave with Nestlé.
It’s true that the simplest explanation is usually the best; in Chaffee County, the simple explanation was that Nestle was forced to react to citizen opposition to their plans in ways they never had before.
Whether that’s a function of the Internet’s ability to network people in rural areas or simply the new reality facing Nestle Waters’ water bottling efforts isn’t clear.
What is clear is that the company’s less savory acts elsewhere – its lawsuits against Fryeburg, the citizens of Michigan, or opposition in McCloud (CA) – are suddenly becoming fodder even in the small rural towns where the company formerly faced little opposition.