INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine — The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township has nearly completed lining up investors for a $25 million water bottling plant, a project that tribal Gov. Joseph Socabasin said will provide 96 full-time, good-paying jobs with benefits.
Socabasin discussed the project this week in the wake of the tribe’s loss at the polls in early November, which blocked plans for a tribe-owned racino in Washington County. Socabasin said the loss was a disappointment, but the tribe continues to pursue several other projects, including the bottling plant.
He said it will be the only Native American-owned water bottling company in North America and with its close proximity to the port at Eastport, may have the ability to market tribal water around the world. Tomah Water LLC, with an office in Bangor, has been created to seek investors for the project.
The water will come from a spring water aquifer on tribal land in Washington County and will be bottled and initially marketed — maybe as soon as next fall — to Native American casinos and hotel chains under those businesses’ own private labels, Socabasin said. Eventually, however, he hopes to break into the retail water market selling under the brand name Passamaquoddy Blue.
“This is very exciting for the tribe,” Socabasin said.
He said initial testing has indicated extremely high-quality water, and at least one million gallons a day can be extracted without affecting the aquifer’s recharge capacity. “There is absolutely no concern of draining the aquifer,” he said.
The aquifer is located about four miles into a forest from U.S. Route 1 just north of the center of town, near Telephone Road. Socabasin said it will be cheaper for the tribe to run a pipeline from the aquifer to the highway than build a road to the site. “This will be much less intrusive for the environment as well,” he said. A 40,000-square-foot facility will be built on Route 1.
Hydrologists and geologists, both privately hired by the tribe and from the Maine Drinking Water Program, have been on site and test pumpings have been conducted. Socabasin said a hydrologist who tested the water told him the quality was “the best water seen in the Northeast.”
Socabasin said the reservation has two freshwater aquifers. One is currently being used as the tribe’s drinking water source but the other would be used solely for bottled water production. He said there would be four bottling lines and when the facility is at its peak — in an estimated 18 months to two years — it will provide 96 full time jobs.
The primary objective of the bottling project, according to a statement online at www.passamaquoddyblue.com, is to create a significant source of jobs on the reservation with earnings that “can stimulate local improvements for the overall well-being of tribal members well into the future.”
The tribe has nearly completed putting together the investment package, Socabasin said, and construction could begin as early as next spring.
Permits will be required from the Maine Department of Agriculture, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection — because extraction will exceed 50,000 gallons a year — and the Maine Drinking Water Program.
Roger Crouse, director of the Drinking Water Program, said recently that one of his hydrologists is already working with the tribe on the project.
Socabasin said the tribe originally hoped to begin construction of the plant this summer but that was delayed because of funding issues. He explained that the project needs to be funded through private investors and loans from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“This is because traditional banks cannot foreclose on reservation properties,” he said.
“BIA was expected (in 2011) to get $250 million for its guaranteed loan program, but that was cut by 80 percent,” Socabasin said. “We were only able to obtain $4.4 million. We are now working with several other programs and expect the full financing package to be in place soon.” He would not be more specific about how much funding is in hand or a time frame for start up.
Socabasin said the tribe will initially market the water to other Native American businesses, such as casinos and hotel chains, which have a policy of dealing first with other Native American businesses.
The chief said that will give his tribe an immediate market and access to a steady stream of bottled water drinkers. Also the tribe’s business plan states that “private label bottling currently generates in excess of $1 billion in yearly sales with growth rates exceeding traditional brands.”
Eventually the water also will be sold retail.
“But in the beginning we will not be a position to compete with companies such as Poland Spring, now owned by Nestle,” the governor said. “We expect that it will take a couple of years before we will be able to offer our own brand.”
Socabasin said the capacity of the aquifer “is huge and offers an amazing economic opportunity for the tribe.”
He said that when he was elected governor a year ago, one of his first acts was to establish an Office of Economic Development. “We had never had such an effort before,” he said. “My whole goal is not just to create jobs, but to pay a livable wage.”