Clean water advocates packed a legislative hearing room Friday to support legislation that would eliminate a discount a regional water authority gave to a bottling company with plans to set up shop in Bloomfield.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said the legislation says that the Metropolitan District Commission, a regional water and sewer agency, can’t charge a bottling company less for water than it charges its residential customers.
When voters in the eight MDC towns voted to separate the storm drains from the sewer system a few years ago, they knew they would be paying more for water in order to help pay off the $2.4 billion in bonds for that project. However, “what they didn’t know when they voted was that they would be subsidizing a corporation that was going to be taking that water and selling it out of state,” Bye said.
The legislation would not erase the $4.9 million tax abatement the town of Bloomfield is giving to Niagara Bottling LLC to move to town and open a facility, which is expected to employ about 130 individuals.
Bye said residents from the Greater Hartford area were completely left out of the process and didn’t have an opportunity to offer input before Bloomfield struck a deal with Niagara.
“The idea of this bill is to have a conversation,” Bye said.
But Niagara Bottling Director of Economic Development & Government Relations Derieth L. Sutton submitted testimony which says the legislation “unfairly targets an industry that serves a public good but fails to consider how other industries utilize the same water resources.”
Niagara chose not to testify in person Friday. A spokesman said it was an “emotionally charged issue” and they preferred to submit factual testimony rather than testify.
Their absence, according to residents and advocates, highlights the lack of transparency about the project.
A Freedom of Information request to the town of Bloomfield by advocates turned up several emails between the town, Niagara Bottling, MDC, and the MetroHartford Alliance.
In a Nov. 16, 2015 email, a Niagara official asks a Bloomfield official if Niagara’s name will be mentioned at a public hearing.
“Will the company’s name be mentioned? If so we may need to pull it from the agenda and postpone till the next. We are not ready for that to be public,” Katie Booher, Niagara’s development specialist told Jose Giner, Bloomfield’s director of Planning and Economic Development.
Kim Green, a West Hartford resident, said everyone seems to have known about this deal except Bloomfield residents and MDC ratepayers.
“Citizens of the towns MDC serves are outraged by the behavior of the MDC,” Green said.
Green said the MDC delivers the water, they don’t own it.
She said it scares her is that a handful of people could make this “reckless decision,” that could impact the state’s water supply.
Bye said she’s confident that today there is enough water to allow Niagara to use 1.8 million gallons per day, but she’s not so sure what the future holds. She said there’s no information about what this means for the state’s water supply five or 10 years from now.
She said Niagara is different than other commercial users because it’s using almost 3 percent of the MDC’s daily water usage.
“This is a wake up call,” Bye said.
She said the profit per bottle of water is about 50 cents per bottle. This plant has the capacity to make 4 billion water bottles a year, which works out to about $2 billion a year in profits and “they’re asking the ratepayers to subsidize that,” Bye said.
“I’m all for jobs and I’m all for industry, but people need to pay their fair share,” Bye said.
William A. Dibella, chairman of the MDC board, said giving Niagara Bottling a discounted rate is an “economic development tool.”
Dibella said Niagara approached them and asked if they gave a discount for high-volume users.
He said this is the first time the agency has given a discounted rate because historically their rates were so low it wasn’t necessary. However, they have to pay off the $2.4 billion in bonds used to help fund the sewer separation project. More than one million gallons of sewage would overflow into homes and the Connecticut River during rain events and as a result the Environmental Protection Agency required the agency to undertake the project.
The agency is funding that through the water rate, so “we have to sell more water,” Dibella said.
He said they’re selling 16 million fewer gallons of water than they were selling in the 1990s.
Scott Jellison, MDC’s executive director, told the committee the rate they’ve given Niagara is estimated to bring in $3.8 million a year and will reduce the rates for its other customers. He said the rate they created is not specifically for Niagara and is available to other customers who fit a specific criteria.