Gov. Paul LePage has nominated a hydrogeologist to the citizen board that enforces and interprets Maine’s environmental laws: Mark Dubois, who works for Poland Spring, the largest producer of spring water in the country.
Dubois’ nomination to the Board of Environmental Protection is generating opposition from groups who worry his appointment could grease the skids for the company’s aggressive expansion plans.
Poland Spring is owned by Nestle Waters, a multinational corporation that has seen its stock prices rise along with the demand for bottled water. In 2016, the company’s water sales yielded $16 billion, and for the first time, outpaced soda sales by volume.
But that growth hasn’t come without local resistance from people like Nickie Sekera, a Fryeburg resident who worries that the company is siphoning a valuable resource from the public while paying little for it.
“I think this appointment is a really bad idea for the state of Maine considering the imbalance of power that Nestle as a corporation brings to the table in our rural state,” she says.
Sekera co-founded Community for Water Justice, the same group that’s asking lawmakers to reject the governor’s nomination of Dubois to the BEP’s seven-member board. The group has sent letters to members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee arguing that Dubois’ appointment to the board would create a fox-in-the-henhouse situation for Poland Spring and Nestle.
Dubois’ confirmation hearing is Wednesday. If the committee recommends his approval to the BEP, he’ll stand a good chance of getting confirmed by the full Senate. And right now, the prospects for his confirmation look good.
“So, we have made some very strong conflict of interest laws,” says Republican Sen. Thomas Saviello of Wilton.
Saviello says Maine has laws to guard against situations in which Dubois would be a decisive vote in a BEP matter involving Poland Spring and Nestle.
If there’s conflict with a Nestle or Poland Spring project, Saviello says Dubois would simply recuse himself. He says that’s what other members of the BEP have done in the past, and that’s what he expects Dubois would do if confirmed by the Legislature.
“This is not about Nestle. This is not about Poland Spring. This is somebody going onto the Board of Environmental Protection that has background and experience. And he has that,” Saviello says.
“My first belief is that the governor gets who he wants unless that person is unqualified,” says Democratic Rep. Bob Duchesne of Hudson.
Duchesne says he believes that Dubois is a qualified pick for BEP. And while he says he understands the conflict of interest argument, Duchesne isn’t persuaded that Dubois would influence the board’s decisions that may involve Nestle or Poland Spring.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion about what the board is and does,” he says. “They do not make policy. They merely interpret what the Legislature does as policy. And there are seven of them, so the idea that somebody on the board can railroad the process to directly benefit one company is a little far fetched.”
But Sekera says Dubois could still influence the board, even if he recuses himself or abstains from votes on Nestle or Poland Spring projects. That’s because the BEP is comprised of people with different areas of expertise, and she says it would be very natural for other board members to lean on Dubois’ expertise — if not publicly, then in private discussions.
And unlike other members of the BEP who have abstained from votes affecting their employers, Dubois works for a corporation that understands the trappings of influence. Nestle Waters is an active lobbying organization in the Legislature, and the company has contributed over $200,000 to political action committees run by Democrats and Republicans over the last several years.
“Sure, there’s definitely overlap, there will be different conflicts with many of those individuals. But I’m talking about the depth and the scope here. This is a different animal that we’re inviting onto our board,” Sekera says.
Dubois did not respond to a request for comment, but he’ll have a chance to make a case for himself when appears before the Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.