July 21--WAITSBURG -- Nestle has been ordered to stop all exploratory work in this town's watershed immediately while the City Council considers the corporation's interest in building a bottling plant here.
It came as a surprise to nearly everyone in the room during a heated Council meeting Wednesday night that explorations had already begun.
Nestle contractors began clearing brush and conducting "fairly non-invasive" work to examine water spring sites Tuesday, according to Bruce Lauerman, a natural resources manager for Nestle Waters North America.
News that the multibillion dollar, multinational business has its eye on 150 million gallons of Waitsburg's annual spring and well-water supplies was not announced to the public until Tuesday.
And while Council member were told in executive session last month of Nestle's interest in building a $50 million water-bottling plant in town, according to Council member Kate Hockersmith, no contracts or other agreements are in place.
Grounds for beginning what might be a months-long study of the city water supplies were based on a handshake between Mayor Walt Goble, City Administrator Randy Hinchliffe and Nestle's Lauerman, discussions at the meeting revealed.
"I'm a little bit dumbfounded sitting here tonight," said Council member KC Kuykendall.
His consternation and amazement at the situation was echoed by his peers on the Council and in the murmurs from the crowd of more than 85 residents in the packed meeting room.
"Here we are now with Nestle up there, doing I don't know what, in our watershed with some unknown, undefined scope of work," Kuykendall said. "And the legislative body sitting here has been kept in the dark. And I just can't believe that you, mayor, went down this path when we had an opportunity just a month ago to prepare if that was your plan."
Kuykendall demanded that all Nestle work at the springs "cease and desist" until the Council has the opportunity to evaluate fully what its intentions are, what the duration of the study will be, and what the risk implications are to the city.
"I don't know that I can even talk about all the questions I have at this point," Hockersmith said.
Council members voted unanimously to pass Kuykendall's motion. The process will begin with a community meeting, details of which will be announced later. Nestle's representatives are not invited, Council members decided.
"As frightening as Nestle is, the more frightening thing is that this Council is clearly at its wit's end," said Waitsburg resident Markeeta Little Wolf. "This has to be stopped, and I respectfully request that you get the hell out of here until this Council has enough information to make an informed decision."
The Council did not outright dismiss a partnership with Nestle, however, and negotiations are likely to continue.
"Let's not be too foolish in our foment against the work that they're doing," Kuykendall said. "I think it's a great idea to consider allowing this multibillion dollar corporation to spend thousands of dollars on these studies and we walk away with a great benefit."
Nestle has stated its exploration of the city's water system will be conducted at no cost to the city, and any scientific and "deep-dive" data they collect will be made available to the city -- even if Nestle decides not to pursue a plant in Waitsburg.
"This could be of great benefit to the city," Mayor Goble said. "We have little hard data on our water system."
Many of the old maps the city once owned showing the locations and collection systems of Waitsburg's springs are now lost or were burned in -- what rumor has it -- was a vindictive act of a former employee let go many decades ago, he said.
Even at this early stage in explorations, the city's public works department has located a large leak in the spring collection system on the Coppei, in the cast-iron pipe works that were installed nearly 100 years ago.
The leak would not likely have been spotted if Nestle hadn't begun its study of the system, according to Jim Lynch of public works.
So although Council has asked Nestle to stop its explorations, the city will now ask the corporation's subcontractor, who happens to be on the city's small-works roster, to use its mini-excavator already on site to help repair the leak, on the city's dime.
The repair cost on the line, which supplies chlorine to all other lines in the system, is unknown. Lynch has been initially authorized to spend $5,000.
In addition to helping the city map, analyze and make small repairs to its water system, Nestle has stated that a bottling plant in Waitsburg would provide 50 permanent, full-time and family wage jobs for the community.
"We work closely in our communities, and integrate ourselves into civic activities," Lauerman, a natural resources specialist, told the grumbling crowd Wednesday.
"I understand and I appreciate that when an announcement is made that Nestle is going to come into a community and evaluate an opportunity that it's going to create a lot of emotions -- water's an emotional topic," he said. " ... My job is to provide knowledge."
Lauerman fielded dozens of questions, including some about accusations that have been made against Nestle in other parts of the world.
The discussion included recent events in Cascade Locks, Ore., where a vote by residents of Hood River County has now blocked the development of any large bottling operations.
Lauerman stated many of these reports are inaccurate and taken out of context. In fact, the leaders and many of the citizens in Cascade Locks want Nestle to build there, he said.
"Waitsburg has a tremendous water supply," Lauerman said. "Records I've looked at tell us probably 4,000 gallons per minute. But we don't know for sure. We need to gather more data.
"Nothing can occur with Nestle development unless there's an ample supply of water for current and potential users as well as the environment. It's going to take some time to figure that out."
Dian Ver Valen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8363 or 509-956-8312.
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