State’s bottled water ban evaporates

Bottled water

Bottled water

Is bottled water a necessity or a luxury? That’s the $213,000 question the Shumlin administration has decided to take a pass on for now. (Last year, the state spent the aforementioned total on thousands of water bottles for the state’s workforce.)

In the near term, Secretary of the Agency of Administration Jeb Spaulding has decided that in many instances bottled water is a necessity for state employees who may not have access to potable water in the workplace.

Spaulding announced last month he would suspend implementation of a ban on bottled water by July 1 in the aftermath of a wellspring of opposition to the proposal from state workers.

Back in March, the bottled water ban was seen as a win-win for everybody: Lawmakers and the administration saw the proposal, similar to bans in New York, Colorado and Illinois, as a way to save money at a time when they faced a $175 million budget gap; The Vermont State Employees Association, which represents about 5,500 state workers, saw it as a way to save jobs; and Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, touted the elimination of this “luxury” item as a way to save the environment.

The Vermont State Employees Association touted the proposal because it would spell the elimination of the state’s private contract with bottled water companies, including Crystal Rock Holdings, of Watertown, Conn. The amount of money the state spends annually on private contracts has long been a bone of contention for the union. Under the Douglas administration, many government services were privatized. The number of “personal service contracts” has grown from 727 at a cost of $110 million per year in 2003, to 1,570 contracts at a total cost of $237 million in 2011. In non-contractual negotiations with the Shumlin administration, the union and Spaulding agreed to a $2 million reduction in private contracts. So far, Spaulding says those savings have yet to materialize.

Conor Casey, legislative coordinator for the union, told the Associated Press in March: “It’s (bottled water) a luxury a lot of our members enjoy, but I think that as we’ve done in the past, we’re trying to put public services first here. It makes more sense to invest in public infrastructure for water.”

Support for the bottled water ban from VSEA members and other state workers, however, evaporated almost as soon as the proposal hit the ground.

Spaulding heeded the rumblings and called for the suspension of the ban in a memo to state employees on June 21. Spaulding said in an interview that his agency heard from highway garages that only had one grease sink available, other state workplaces only had access to water from bathrooms or had concerns about the potability of municipal water.

“We’re suspending implementation of the policy until we have a chance to look through it,” Spaulding said. “It was the right thing to step back and consider issues and concerns — a lot of them are warranted. We hope to resolve it in a month or two. We need 60 days to cancel contracts.”

At the moment those issues could be structural and expensive. Many of the water fountains in the state’s biggest workplaces – the Waterbury complex and 133 State St. – have been removed. The only water fountain at the Department of Motor Vehicles (120 State St.), a five-story office building that also houses the Department of Education, is on the first floor.

Spaulding said it’s a lot to ask employees to trek that far for drinking water – particularly in the summer heat (there is no air conditioning in the building).

He wrote in his memo to state workers that while the administration is, “committed to environmental conservation, support for municipal water systems, and conservative use of taxpayer funds. It is also committed to the well being of state employees and recognizes that good morale is the foundation of strong productivity and customer service.”

Jes Kraus, executive director of VSEA, praised the administration’s response. He said the ban was not as simple to implement as originally envisioned.

“They’ve been proactive in trying to assess this,” Kraus said. “They’ve come to realize it’s not as simple as this is a contract we’d like to do away with. They have an interest, as we do, in making sure employees have safe drinking water available.”

The pushback from employees is also a sign of better times. VSEA originally proposed the ban as a cost-saving measure in lieu of layoffs. “Now, thankfully, we’re not in same position,” Kraus said. “Workers want to make sure their water is OK.”

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. George Cross :

    “….had concerns about the potability of municipal water.” Hopefully these concerns have been directed to the health department. I suspect this is littl more than babble, as Vermont’s municipal water supplies are generally okay.

  2. Siobhan Perricone :

    This has turned out to be a lot longer than I expected. I guess I have a lot of strong feelings about this issue.

    1) The water in municipalities is clean and safe to drink. There is a lot of monitoring and evaluation done on the systems, and Vermont has clean municipal water.

    That doesn’t mean it tastes good, though. Just because the water is clean doesn’t mean that the pipes in the building or the distance it has to travel in those pipes, isn’t adding a yucky taste to the water. Safe water also doesn’t mean that the water doesn’t have a heavy chlorine taste to it (that some people are sensitive to and others simply can’t stomach and so won’t drink it). In some places in the Waterbury complex (for example), the water is running through very old pipes and up four stories. It never, ever gets cold even in the one story buildings. It occasionally runs brown for a day or two (no one seems to be exactly sure what causes that), usually a few times throughout the year. In Montpelier, in every state office I’ve been in, the tap/fountain water tastes foul. It’s very heavy on the chlorine.

    There are some offices where the quality of the water coming out of specific taps is being questioned for reasonable reasons, but it is usually to do with the immediate environment of the particular tap, not the safety of the municipal source.

    2) Businesses have been providing water to their employees for decades. That’s where the whole “talking around the water cooler” trope started. This is a normal part of the business world. It is not unreasonable for state workers to want something similar in their offices.

    3) State workers are employees. We are human beings. We drink and eat. We spent eight hours a day at our (largely thankless) jobs, just like everyone else working full time does (though I doubt most private sector employees get as vilified on a daily basis and accused of being leeches on the public). We spend roughly a third of our days working, just like private employees do. We have health issues and sensitivities, and preferences, and desires and dreams and hopes just like everyone else.

    We don’t get anywhere near the perks found in private industry. There are no climbing walls in our office buildings. We don’t get employee discounts at state parks (or any other state service). We pay every single tax everyone else pays. We pay permit and license fees, just like anyone else who needs to use a state service. We don’t get breaks on health care (our health care costs have been rising steadily as more and more of the premium costs get put on us in order to close the budget gaps). The state doesn’t usually pay for hot beverage supplies for employees (we have coffee clubs).

    We aren’t allowed to get paid for overtime in most cases (there are some special cases, but they are rare, most state employees can’t get overtime pay). And on the rare occasions we might be approved for overtime, a large number of us can’t earn time and a half, and we often aren’t allowed money for it, but get comp time off instead, which we can’t take very easily because we’re doing the jobs of two or three people due to layoffs.

    We deal with people who are in some of the most difficult situations of their lives (lost employment, substance abuse, criminal activity, environmental pollution, housing loss/foreclosure, vehicle violations, deaths in the families, problems paying taxes, the list goes on and on) on shoestring budgets and for the last four years or so, with the threat of losing our jobs and becoming one of those poor people we’re trying to help.

    In most cases our wages are not even close to what we’d be earning for a comparable job in the private sector (in some cases they are, but if there are positions that are actually paid more than their private sector counterpart, I’ve never heard of it, could exist, but I’d want to see proof). There are many state workers employed full time who qualify for public assistance, food stamps, WIC, Catamount health care, Medicaid, etc. because their pay is THAT low.

    What do we get? Why do we do these jobs? We get to know that we’re doing important work that needs to be done for the health, safety, and well-being of the people of this state. We get a reasonable holiday schedule which means time off to celebrate holidays with our families. Being a state worker used to mean less risk of being laid off, though that’s not really been the case the last four to six years or so. We have a shot at a decent retirement benefit (though the age for that keeps going up, so we’re going to have to work longer for less money), though the latest economic crisis as sent many of our retirees back into part time employment and the retirement fund keeps being threatened. We get annual and sick leave (though not as much as one gets in some businesses, it is at least comparable to most).

    And some offices will buy bottled water for the employees.

    I say some because my office never paid for bottled water. We have a bottled water club (that I manage). I was told that our agency didn’t pay for bottled water at all.

    Oh, and the water we buy? It’s bottled from a fantastic spring in Stockbridge, VT. This is a strong flowing spring and there are spigots on the side of the road where you can just go and get water any time you want. The water source has been tested and it is very sturdy. The water drawn from it has very little impact on the water table. So the bottled water we buy is not from a threatened or delicate, high mountain ecosystem. The bottles it comes in are BPA free. They are reused over and over. The cooler that the bottle goes in is a high efficiency model that doesn’t use lots of electricity, and we have it on an appliance timer, so that it shuts off at 5PM and turns back on at 5AM. Twelve hours a day it’s not even drawing power. I know the water delivery guy by name and have been chatting with him a bit every few weeks for years. He’s got a girlfriend and a good life, that is actually threatened by the potential loss of his job because a lot of his deliveries go to state offices.

    Like lots of other issues that seem simple on the surface, the provision of bottled water to state employees is more complex than it appears at first blush.

  3. Mike Curtis :

    Yes, the comment about unspecified “concerns about the potability of municipal water” sound a bit silly. If there are true concerns, then we have more serious issues to discuss than water coolers in state offices! The truth is that municipal water supplies are as safe (or perhaps even safer) than bottled water.

    It sounds like the Administration is working on finding some reasonable middle ground here. Eliminate water coolers where alternative water supplies are available and keep water coolers in places where workers have no other access to drinking water. It’s simple. In the end, it will save a bit of money and be uncontroversial. Some workers will have to give up a small luxury of office life. They’ll still have clean drinking water and in 2 months, it’ll all be forgotten.

    Cheers!

  4. Articles like this help raise awareness about an issue that is a sleeper in the environmental world. People buy bottled water because the impression is it’s safer than tap water, while governments and some environmental groups make the case that municipal water is better regulated than bottled water. We all need to become better educated about these issues, and make choices based on factual information rather than impressions.

    More than 60% of Vermonters get their water from groundwater wells. Thanks to Governor Shumlin’s recent veto of legislation that would have required testing at the time of sale of a home, there are no testing requirements for that water quality. It can contain unhealthy substances such as arsenic, radon, and other contaminants. If you rely on well water, it is wise to get the water tested annually.

    Municipal water in Vermont comes from groundwater or surface water. Most of the largest systems use surface water. These systems are facing regulations coming down from EPA that are becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to comply with, and do not necessarily mean the water is healthier for consumers. Vermont’s Water Supply Division chief recently quit his job over EPA’s heavy-handed involvement in compliance issues for Vermont’s municipal water systems.

    The state’s largest municipal water system, the Champlain Water District, which serves 68,000 people in Chittenden County (but not Burlington), did what many systems are being pushed by EPA to do, which is to switch its secondary disinfectant from chlorine to chloramine (a combination of chlorine and ammonia). Hundreds of people have reported health problems since the switch, some minor, some extremely serious. Common symptoms are typical of mucous membrane irritation, and include skin rashes like chemical burns, respiratory problems like asthma, and gastrointestinal problems such as bleeding from the rectum. These symptoms are being experienced by people served by systems using chloramine in San Francisco CA, Poughkeepsie NY, and many other states and countries. EPA is currently encouraging Vermont’s water systems to use chloramine, including Tri-Town, Grand Isle, and Rutland City. While you can and should filter chlorine out of your tap water (not just for drinking and cooking, but also for showering), chloramine is extremely difficult and expensive to filter. The best response to these EPA regulations is for the public to attend your water board or fire district meetings and get involved so you understand what is being used in your water and encourage removing organic matter up front so that fewer chemicals are added at the end. For more info on this, see http://www.vce.org/chloramine.html. I recommend reading Erin Brockovich’s piece about chloramine that is posted on the site.

    Bottled water, especially the source of the water consumed by the people who are the subject of this article, is another area where ignorance is bliss. The source in Stockbridge is technically an artesian well, not a spring. See Story #6 of this report we issued in 2008 http://www.vce.org/VCE_ANR_Ten_Stories.pdf beginning on page 17 of the actual report to see the history of how it was developed and the regulatory program around it. The “owner” was required to provide legal assurance as part of his permit application in 1994 that he had legal control of the 200 foot isolation zone. In 2007 we investigated and found that there are at least 3 septic tanks and leach fields within that 200 foot isolation zone. There is more to the story of the state’s failure to require this water source’s owner to comply with his permit involving the requirement to report the quantity of water withdrawn for sale.

    Siobhan, above, says the withdrawal of the Stockbridge water for bottling has “very little” impact on the water table. The water source has no zoning permit, no Act 250 permit, a Bulk Water permit with no requirements to do any environmental evaluations, so there is no information upon which to rely to make such a statement. In fact, the water source is within 200 feet of the Tweed River, and it is possible that the withdrawals are having a negative impact on the temperature of the water in the river, which would affect aquatic life, but nobody has ever done any evaluations.

  5. merry shernock :

    The talk around the water cooler in the Court House where I work was not about the potability of the municiple water; it was about 1) how much sweat is produced in an unairconditioned cubicle on one of the upper floors where it gets to 80 degrees by 10 a.m. (the Court rooms have a/c)
    2) while working for 3% less pay and
    3) doing more than ever trying to catch up on the work that still needs to get done even though the number of workers to do it has shrunk.

    I wonder if the wealthiest 3% of VT who benefitted from the tax-cuts at the Federal level and who did not get taxed by the State of VT (because that proposal failed in this year’s session) would like to “sponsor” the watering of some district office? Sorta like a softball team?

    We’d be mighty grateful.

  6. Susan Barber :

    Why should budget pay for bottled water for state workers? I say the workers can bring in there own bottled water if they want it. The tax money should not pay for the state workers personal wants, the state workers should buy there own bottled water if they feel the need to have this luxury.

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