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Concord bottled water ban OK’d

Hoping to encourage more Concord residents to drink tap water and reduce the number of plastic bottles piling up in landfills, Jean Hill has spent the last three years pushing for a ban on the sale of ­single-serving plastic water bottles.

Her efforts paid off Wednesday when Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office signed off on a bylaw that apparently makes Concord the first community in the nation to approve such a ban.

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“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am,’’ said Hill, an 84-year-old Concord resident. “It took three years to do this and now that it’s happened, I’m so relieved.’’

While Coakley’s office has ruled that the bylaw does not violate state or federal laws, the ban could still be challenged in court, and a national trade organization said it is considering legal action.

“We’re disappointed in the attorney general’s decision and we will be looking at other legal options,’’ said Chris Hogan, a spokesman for the Virginia-based International Bottled Water Association. “We’re also disappointed in how this will affect the residents and visitors in Concord.’’

Hogan said Concord appears to be the first community in the United States to enact this kind of ban though several colleges and universities have taken the step.

According to the bylaw approved by residents in April, it will be illegal to sell non-sparkling and unflavored drinking water in single-serving plastic bottles of 1 liter or less in Concord on or after Jan. 1, 2013.

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Coakley’s office has been reviewing the bylaw since April to make sure it does not violate state or federal laws. It notified the town Wednesday that the ban was consistent with existing laws.

Concord resident Adriana Cohen said she is disappointed by the decision and is considering placing an article on an upcoming Town Meeting warrant to rescind the ban.

“I believe it’s an encroachment on our freedom,’’ Cohen said. “Bottled water is a safe, legal FDA-approved product, and I should have the right to buy it.’’

Cohen said a ban will only hurt the local economy as people will simply buy the bottled water in neighboring towns. “I don’t believe it’s going to reduce consumption,’’ she said. “It’s just going to hurt local businesses. This whole ban defies common sense.”

Cohen said she also worries that the ban sets a bad precedent.

“These things have a snowball effect that can be very dangerous,” she said. “What products are next on the chopping block?”

The ban was first approved at Town Meeting in 2010 but was shot down by the state attorney general’s office, which found that it was not written as a valid bylaw. It was revised and resubmitted in 2011, but was defeated by seven votes. Hill presented her proposal again in April and it passed 403 to 364.

“I hope other towns will follow,’’ Hill said. “I feel bottled water is a waste of money.”

Town Manager Chris Whelan said he will work with the Board of Health this fall to review the regulations and set up an enforcement policy. According to the bylaw, any establishment violating the ban is subject to a warning for the first offense, a $25 fine for the second offense, and $50 fine for the third and subsequent offenses.

The bylaw does provide for an exemption during emergencies. It also allows the Board of Selectmen to suspend the bylaw if the cost of implementing or enforcing it becomes unreasonable.

Jill Appel, who worked with Hill to get the ban approved, is now leading an initiative called “Concord on Tap.” The group has been working with businesses and organizations to move away from bottled water and back to using the town’s water system.

Appel said Concord on Tap is also educating residents and visitors about where to find public tap water. She said the group is working on a map of public drinking fountains that will be available on its website and also the Concord Visitors Center.

Appel also hopes that the website will serve as a resource for other communities that may want to follow Concord’s lead.

“By returning to public water, we are reducing great amounts of waste plastic products in our landfill and taking an important step toward a sustainable future for our community,” she said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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