Bill to ban bottled water purchases by state government gets icy reception

Posted Feb. 25, 2013, at 6:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Democratic representative from Freedom and a handful of environmental advocates argued for a law Monday that would prohibit state and local governments from buying bottled water, saying the move would save the state thousands of dollars and thrust Maine into a leadership role in a nationwide effort to reduce waste from bottled water.

Representatives for the state’s water utilities, fire chiefs and the Department of Transportation came out against the measure at a public hearing before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.

The committee was hearing a bill from Rep. Brian Jones, LD 315, which would bar any state agency and “any political subdivision” in the state from purchasing bottled water.

“It is a common-sense piece of legislation because it would save the state money from bottled water purchases in its facilities,” said Rep. Ben Chipman, a Portland independent who’s a co-sponsor of the bill.

Chipman said the bill’s passage would result in less waste and send a positive message about the state’s public water supply.

“The message from passing this bill isn’t that bottled water is bad,” he said. “The message by passing this bill is that tap water is good. I think we need to lead by example as a state.”

“We’ve got people back home who are hurting, and we’re spending lots of money on bottled water,” said Ben Pratt of Eddington, a former House member who testified at the hearing.

But lawmakers on the committee worried that the bill was written too broadly and that any measure to bar state and local government agencies from buying bottled water would need to include a carve-out for firefighters and other emergency responders.

“I think this bill as written has huge unintended consequences,” said Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, the House chairwoman of the State and Local Government Committee.

Others on the committee wondered whether there was even a problem in the first place for the bill to address.

“I have to say candidly that this is a problem that is so minor in state government,” said Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells.

Nina Fisher, legislative liaison for the state Department of Transportation, said her agency spends nearly $30,000 annually on bottled water, providing it in large jugs to crews at work sites and to residents whose water access is temporarily cut off because of road construction. Fisher said Transportation Department spending on bottled water accounts for about half of all state spending on bottled water.

Advocates for the purchasing ban pointed to studies showing no substantial differences in the quality of bottled water and public water supplies. They also pointed to example policies in San Francisco, which in 2007 prohibited city departments from purchasing bottled water, and Concord, Mass., which last year banned the sale of single-serving water bottles within its borders. In addition, seven state governments have implemented some form of bottled water purchase restrictions.

A representative of the International Bottled Water Association who testified Monday, however, said many of those policies haven’t come as a result of legislative action and have proved unworkable.

Mark Bosse, chief of the Poland Fire and Rescue Department, testified against the measure, saying emergency responders depend on bottled water at emergency scenes. And Jeffrey McNelly of the Maine Water Utilities Association said the state’s water utilities depend on bottled water supplies in emergencies.

“If this bill passes, it impedes our ability to have contingencies on hand to deal with the situation,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a place where we need to depend on a governor to declare an emergency and then we wait for trucks to roll in.”

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