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Niagara Bottling Plant Bill to Get Public Hearing

Keoni Cabral
Creative Commons

The project to bring a bottled water facility to Bloomfield will be up for discussion at the State Capitol Friday.  There's a public hearing on a bill that would make it harder for bottling companies to get discounts on the public water they buy. 

Opponents have called it an insider's job, saying that plans to give the Niagara Water bottling company breaks on its taxes and its water usage fees were done in secret. But municipal officials have boasted about the project, saying it will be good for the state's economy.

One question throughout has been whether Niagara should have gotten cheaper rates from the Metropolitan District Commission. The commission has maintained that its recently approved rates for large volume users are intended to apply to all users. But opponents like Kevin Gough say it's clear that the new rates were pushed through for Niagara's benefit.

"The water rate reduction comes directly from their negotiations with Niagara," Gough said. He got a bunch of correspondence from the MDC through a freedom of information request. He pointed to an email from August 20 of last year, in which Niagara asked for discounted sewer rates from the MDC.

"And they say, quote, 'if not mitigated in some way makes our move to an area within MDC jurisdiction essentially cost prohibitive'... That means they're telling them, unless you reduce this rate, we ain't coming."

Other emails showed the MDC going back and forth with Niagara about fee reductions that could eventually provide over a million dollars in annual savings to Niagara.

Gough said that's bad practice.

"I don't think that is the way we believe the system, especially the system that we've set up with our public utilities and our government, is supposed to work," he said. "It's not supposed to play favorites."

But the MDC disputed his reading of the emails. It has said that it changed the rates as part of a larger budgetary discussion and its need to raise more money. Its attorney, Bart Halloran, said that the change in rates was about attracting more industrial water use -- not just about attracting Niagara.

Meanwhile, legislators are set to hear public testimony introduced by state Sen. Beth Bye. She opposes the Bloomfield project as it stands now.

"This is not about industrial uses of water and hurting economic development," Bye told WNPR earlier this week. "This is about a sweetheart deal for a company that'?s talking about way more water than anyone else has even come close to using.?"

Bye has introduced a bill that has two main parts. First, in a time of shortages, the bill would put the needs of residential water users before those of commercial users like Niagara. Second, the bill would make it so Niagara wouldn'?t be able to buy water at a discounted rate.

"?I feel like we need to do whatever it takes to make informed decisions and protect this critical resource," Bye said.  "And this is a way to say... if you?'re already going to make a huge profit, you don'?t get it at a discount.?"

In response to the bill, Niagara issued the following statement:

We urge people interested in this issue to visit Niagarawater.com/facts where we have presented information in a clear, accurate and truthful way. People questioning whether we've been transparent in this process should know that Niagara Bottling appeared before Town Council, subcommittee and MDC board meetings and encountered no opposition from the public.It is difficult to respond to an emotionally charged issue with facts, but we have conducted ourselves in an entirely ethical and legal manner, and we are confident that people will come to know us as a good corporate citizen.This is a good project for Bloomfield. We will invest over $70 million in our Bloomfield plant and, in doing so, generate significant revenue for local contractors and sub-contractors and their workers. We will hire more than 70 employees and will offer competitive salary and benefits packages. Wherever possible, we promote from within. The water we will draw as a commercial customer will in no way compromise supply. And the incremental revenue we will generate for the water system will contribute to its infrastructure and help pay for its operations.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.

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