U.S. Water News Online
POLAND SPRING, Maine (AP editorial) -- The way Thomas
Sobol describes it, you'd expect to find Poland Spring a scummy
puddle teeming with mosquito larvae.
The original source of America's best-selling bottled spring water
``is stagnant and no longer flows,'' according to court papers filed
by Sobol and several other attorneys. Their complaint goes on to
argue that the groundwater which once fed the spring, and still
provides a significant fraction of Poland Spring water, has been
contaminated by sewage and a garbage dump.
Yet visitors to the Poland Spring Museum and Spring House can peer
into a limpid pool that looks like it could slake a Saharan thirst.
So what to make of Michelle Savalle and SDB Trucking v. Nestle
Waters, the widely publicized class action lawsuit that Sobol and his
colleagues filed in July? Are these attorneys a band of valiant
servants to the public good taking on a cynical corporation? Or are
they a bunch of greedy lawyers interested in nothing more than a big
Wherever the truth lies, the suit offers a fascinating glimpse at
how Nestle, which owns Poland Spring, and other companies have turned
ordinary water into an almost mystical entity and reaped billions in
``There is no truth to these allegations,'' says Kim Jeffrey,
President and CEO of Poland Spring. Sobol and his fellow attorneys
are the ones doing the deceiving and misleading, Nestle officials
insist. On truthaboutpolandspring.com, a Web site Nestle set
up in response to the suit, the company bemoans the proliferation of
tort lawyers and class-action claims.
``As a company with a product that is in great demand, we've
become a target for lawyers who make their living suing people,'' the
There is no doubt of the galloping demand for bottled water. This
year bottled water is expected to surpass coffee, beer and milk to
become the second most consumed beverage in the United States, behind
only soft drinks. If current trends continue, says Michael C. Bellas,
chairman and CEO of the Beverage Marketing Corp., bottled water will
eclipse even soda by 2020.
``I've never seen a beverage phenomenon like bottled water,'' he
Places like Poland Spring play an integral role in the water
business. With down-home brand names, labels depicting idyllic
landscapes and slogans touting purity and harmony with nature,
multinational corporations try to evoke images of nature unspoiled.
That's why Nestle goes to the trouble of buying and developing
springs from coast to coast and marketing them under different
labels. Poland Spring sells mostly in New England and the urban
Northeast; Florida gets Zephyrhills. California has Arrowhead; the
Midwest, Ice Mountain. Texans and their neighbors know Nestle water
as Ozarka. Altogether, Nestle has 75 U.S. bottled water brands.
Nestle capitalizes on the Poland Spring location with the slogan
``What it Means to be from Maine.'' But what DOES it mean?
``Most places in Maine where you put in a well you'll end up with
good water quality,'' says Maine State Geologist Robert Marvinney.
Poland Spring is one of those places. So are Clear Spring and
Evergreen Spring, both about 30 miles away, and Garden Spring, eight
miles away. Nestle names all three springs as sources of Poland
The lawsuit charges that many of the features Nestle calls springs
are really manmade excavations, created by backhoes that dug down
until they reached the water table.
If you want to put a label on the bottle that says ``spring
water,'' federal regulations specifically require -- among other
things -- that ``there shall be a natural force causing the water to
flow to the surface through a natural orifice.''
The springs associated by Nestle with some of its Maine wells are
not the idyllic pools that come to mind when the company talks about
``pristine sources'' and ``earth's most precious resources.''
Some of them are downright unsightly, stagnant puddles surrounded
by boggy ground in areas rife with mosquitoes and deer flies. And as
the lawsuit states, some of them are adjacent to parking lots.
The notion that a single drop of Poland Spring comes from these
filthy puddles would give the marketing people fits. But no Poland
Spring water actually comes from them, of course. No Poland Spring
water actually comes from Poland Spring itself, for that matter, or
any other spring. Nestle pumps Poland Spring water out of the ground
through wells scattered all over southern Maine.
It's OK to put the Poland Spring label on that water, company
officials say. Federal regulations allow a bottler to pump water from
wells and label it ``spring water'' as long as a few conditions are
met. The wells must tap the same formation that feeds a spring named
on the bottle, and the wells must produce water indistinguishable
from what comes out of the ground naturally.
Poland Spring meets those requirements, Nestle's Kristen Tardif
says. What's more, she adds, collecting water through wells rather
than piping it from natural springs is better because it reaches down
into the earth to capture upwelling water. If you collect water from
a surface spring there is a chance it will be contaminated between
the time it flows out of the ground and into the bottle.
Nestle is simply collecting spring water before it gets to the
spring, Tardif explains.
Nonsense, counters Bill Miller, president of the National Spring
Water Association. Miller formed the organization, whose members are
mostly small bottlers, during the 1990s. At the time, the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration was developing the regulations that govern
the spring water industry today.
The chances that water pumped out of a well would otherwise have
flowed through the ground to emerge from a particular spring nearby
are slim, says Miller, who operates a spring in North Carolina. So
how can you slap a label that says Poland Spring on a bottle of water
that was actually pumped out of the ground more than a mile away?
A few years ago, a landowner like Miller could turn a spring into
a nice little business with an investment of a few hundred thousand
dollars. Now Nestle and other large corporations are running the
little guys out of business with highly efficient bottling plants,
massive distribution networks and enormous sales volume.
``The whole competitive landscape has changed tremendously,'' says
Nestle director of corporate communications Jane Lazgin.
Those economic shifts may have at least as much to do with the
class action suit as the quality of Poland Spring water.
It seems several attorneys representing small New England bottlers
recently approached Nestle wanting to discuss trends in the business.
The attorneys were trying to find a mutually acceptable way for their
clients to coexist with Nestle in the new competitive landscape. And
depending on whom you ask, these attorneys may also have been
representing consumers harmed by Nestle's alleged misrepresentation
of Poland Spring's origins.
The negotiations were going well, says Jan Schlichtmann, one of
the attorneys. Nestle was willing to concede that it has experienced
growing pains as its business has expanded. During the mid-1990s, for
example, Poland Spring was afflicted with a spate of customer
complaints about funny-smelling water. Tests showed that the water
had unusually high levels of bacteria not harmful to humans.
The odor problem was caused by a poorly maintained carbon
filtration unit in the plant, they say, not contamination of the
source. The carbon unit was replaced years ago, and the customer
The company has also had problems with state regulators in
Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But those issues were mostly
technical and have been ironed out, Lazgin explains.
``We were working towards some ideas that could resolve these
disputes,'' Schlichtmann says.
But that resolution never came, he complains, because Sobol and a
few of his compatriots decided they could make more money by
abandoning the negotiations and filing the class-action lawsuit.
The way Sobol tells it, Schlichtmann was about to reach an
agreement with Nestle that benefited only the bottlers, leaving
consumers out of the equation.
Nestle offers yet another variation on the story. At the end of
2002, Lazgin says, they were approached by a group of attorneys
representing ``some unnamed competitors.''
``There were two, maybe three, opportunities for us to refute
their claims,'' she says, and then in July things fell apart.
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.