Erin council votes to accept Nestle Waters”™ voluntary levy

Council here has voted 4-1 in favour of accepting an annual contribution from Nestlé Waters Canada, despite strong opposition from many at the meeting.

People packed the Erin council chamber and spilled into the hallways to hear council’s decision on April 18, many of them holding signs that read “please say no.”

Nestlé Waters proposed in February an annual voluntary levy of $0.50 per 1,000 litres, with a minimum payment of $25,000 per year.

Based on data from 2000 to 2016, Erin would have received between $27,000 and $141,000 annually if the levy had been in place. The average levy would be about $40,000.

After two delegations, one from Andreanne Simard and Jennifer Kerr of Nestlé Waters and the other from Liz Armstrong and Heidi Matthews representing the opposed citizens, councillors discussed at length whether they should accept the levy.

A report from finance director Ursula D’Angelo recommended council accept the levy based on past practice of the town.

“The voluntary levy is just simply a continuation of the levy that the town has accepted since 2001,” she said.

From 2001 to 2009, the town accepted a voluntary levy at a rate of $0.50 per 1,000 gallons (3.78 litres per gallon), which was put toward general operating expenses. The yearly payments ranged from $7,134 to $31,957.

In 2010 and 2012, the town received a total donation of $30,000, which funded the skate park and playground equipment at Barbour Field. The report states the town has not received any payments or donations from Nestlé since 2013.

Simard said that in 2015, Nestlé initiated a community relations program which led to the reinstatement of the levy.

Councillor John Brennan asked if council could get rid of the word levy.

“In no way is this a tax that is being imposed by the town on Nestlé,” he said. “I’d also like to get rid of the idea that the town is selling water to Nestlé.”

Brennan added that in the past, three other councils accepted Nestlé’s money, and it did not prevent them from taking an opposing position when the permit came up for renewal.

“We can’t prevent Nestlé from taking water by refusing the money that they are offering,” he said. “The simple fact is that Nestlé will continue to take water until and unless the province of Ontario refuses to grant them a … permit to do so.”

Brennan proposed the town use the money to create a partnership with Nestlé to lobby the provincial government to impose a deposit on plastic bottles.

“We have an opportunity to do something positive with this money, and I would like to see us do that,” said Brennan.

Councillor Rob Smith said he viewed the issue as a moral one.

“The conversations I’ve had with people in town, it’s not so much even about the water, it’s about Nestlé,” he said.

“I think there’s options to do whatever with this money and could be for (recycling) education.”

Councillor Matt Sammut lauded the group of citizens opposing the levy. He said there were several issues, such as plastic waste and water sustainability.

“If we do, I believe, take the money I struggle at saying we’re not in some ways saying we’re okay with the model that’s here,” he said.

He added that he was worried about the future.

“We have to be strong and say that we don’t want the levy and get some answers from the province until maybe we hear from more of our residents to hear what they really want,” he said, garnering an applause from the crowd.

Councillor Jeff Duncan stated he was opposed to Nestlé in the early 2000s. He added this levy would be the town’s way of getting something back from the bottled water industry.

“It is not (about) profit from the levy. It is, in my view, trying to make up for the lost revenue that our municipality has been short-changed on for a long time,” he said.

“I find the community benefit fund levy … is in the best interest of our community for both a practical and a hopeful standpoint.”

Duncan added council could choose to end the agreement with Nestlé at any time.

Mayor Allan Alls said he was “fed up” with some of the responses he has received on this issue.

“This has been turned into an emotional issue … we need to look at it from a technical and practical point of view,” he said.

“It’s turned community members against one another, and I am fed up with it. I’ve had hate mail, I’ve had emails sent to me that are disgusting, that are filled with inaccuracies.”

Alls said he was in favour of the levy, though he doesn’t like plastic water bottles.

Sammut introduced a motion to defer the decision until after the two-year provincial moratorium, which failed due to lack of support from other councillors.

Council then voted 4-1 in favour of accepting the levy, with Sammut opposed.

While the meeting was relatively calm for the durations of the delegations and discussion, there were some moments of tension, as members of the audience interrupted the meeting.

“Shame,” yelled one audience member, who was subsequently kicked out of the council chamber.

Nestlé presents report

Before the decision was made Simard, Nestlé Waters’ natural resource manager, and Kerr, Nestlé’s director of corporate affairs, presented Nestlé’s 2016 annual report.

The well was drilled in the 1980s, said Simard. The water is pumped into a silo and transported to Aberfoyle using about five tankers per day. She added 100 per cent of the water pumped by Nestlé stays in Canada and 73% stays in Ontario.

Simard said the company’s 200-acre property is farmed by Everdale Organic Farms and is pesticide-free to protect the ground water.

The well is 39 metres deep into the Guelph Aquifer.

“Water level fluctuations or variations in the Guelph aquifer are very stable,” said Simard.

Sammut asked the pair why Nestlé hasn’t done more to combat the plastic waste problem.

Kerr said Nestlé has reduced plastic in its bottles by 50 per cent over the last 10 years. She added Nestlé is hoping to create public space recycling programs with key partners.

“I can tell you that 76 per cent of the people that purchase groceries in Ontario buy packaged bottled water,” said Kerr.

Duncan asked if Nestlé would be willing to reduce the maximum daily amount it takes from the well, as trends show the company has not taken close to the maximum in 17 years of operation.

“The rate that we apply for is the rate that was scientifically designed … for that location, and it’s certainly something we would take a look at,” said Simard.

Brennan said reducing the maximum “would go along way” towards “quelling some of the fears out in the populace.”

Citizens ask for ‘no’ vote

Matthews and Armstrong, who both sit on Erin’s environmental and sustainability advisory committee but were not representing the group, listed reasons why council should refuse the money.

Armstrong said the consequences of accepting the levy expand beyond Erin’s borders, including plastic water pollution and commodification of water.

“You will make an industry that you oppose look better than it should,” said Armstrong. “You, as a council, feel short changed by Nestlé for taking our water and not paying anything to the town for it.”

Matthews said, “There are different visions between corporations and municipalities … We have entrusted you as our elected officials to protect and enhance our community.”

Armstrong presented council with several letters written by community members as well as a petition asking council to deny the levy. Matthews held up a poster of a dead albatross showing the amount of plastic in its stomach.

“Water is a sacred trust,” said Matthews.

Both asked council to at least defer the decision until more could be heard by the residents of the community.