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Concord girds for ban on single-serving water bottles

Law goes in effect Tuesday; opponents gear up for a fight

Single-serving plastic water bottles will soon be stripped from the shelves of stores, restaurants, and vending machines in Concord as businesses prepare for the town’s ban on the sale of such containers to take effect Tuesday.

With its Town Meeting vote last spring, Concord apparently became the first community in the nation to outlaw the bottles in an effort to improve the environment. But opposition is mounting among some residents, business owners, and the bottled water industry.

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Some residents are preparing to submit a citizen’s petition for the upcoming Town Meeting in April that would seek to overturn the bylaw.

“As a mother of three young kids, I’m in favor of banning assault weapons and school violence, not harmless water,’’ said Adriana Cohen, who lives in town and is part of Concord Residents for Consumer Choice. “It’s a no-brainer our country needs to focus on the most important priorities facing humanity and that is the health and safety of our children.’’

Once the new bylaw takes effect in the new year, plastic water bottles 1 liter or less cannot be sold in Concord, said Town Manager Chris Whelan. Even six-packs or cases of individual bottles cannot be sold, he said.

“For the average Concord citizen, this is really a small change,’’ said resident Jill Appel, one of the bylaw’s proponents. “The intent of this is to start changing habits and start getting back to the tap.’’

Opponents, though, say the ban will only drive people out of Concord to buy water, prompt consumers to purchase less healthy drinks, and limit consumer choice.

Elizabeth Akehurst-Moore, the owner of Trail’s End Café and Corner Store in Concord, said her businesses will sell single-serving bottles right up until Tuesday and then switch to 1.5 liter bottles. She said the café will continue to offer free tap water but Akehurst-Moore thinks customers will simply buy other drinks.

“When we’ve been out stock of water, people will grab other things in glass or plastic like a Gatorade or Coke,’’ said Akehurst-Moore, who opposes the bylaw. “I think people will just buy other things in a container.’’

According to Chris Hogan, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, Concord appears to be the first community in the United States to enact this kind of ban against bottled water, though several colleges and universities have taken the step. The association opposes the bylaw.

One Concord resident says the ban will have a negative impact on her health because she has a medical condition that requires her to drink bottled water.

Ann Davidson, 82, sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen this month saying she has hemochromatosis, a disease that causes her body to absorb too much iron. She said she cannot eat or drink anything that contains large quantities of iron, such as tap water.

She said she also suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which affects her ability to carry around large water bottles.

“The restriction on the sale of single-serving plastic bottles of water in Concord is more than an inconvenience to me — it jeopardizes my health!’’ she wrote. “While the ban on bottled water is premised on ideals that I believe in, the ban itself lacks foresight and ignores the health concerns of many residents.’’

Whelan acknowledged that Concord’s drinking water contains some iron. A 2012 water quality report, posted on the town’s website, shows the highest detected levels falling well below the limits allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Whelan said that starting in January, employees from the town’s health department will visit all businesses to make sure they are complying with the new bylaw, will make periodic checks, and will respond to complaints.

Whelan said a business would be cited only if a health inspector witnesses a transaction or a display of water bottles for sale. He said word-of-mouth complaints would not be enough to trigger a citation.

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.

Appel, one of the bylaw’s proponents, has started a group, Concord on Tap, which is working with businesses in town to promote the use of tap water. Appel said several businesses are selling reusable water bottles with the Concord on Tap logo.

“We are getting the word out and people are buying them left and right,’’ she said.

Appel said she thinks the ban will survive the various challenges.

“For the past two years, the bottled water industry has been paying people to walk our streets and do direct mailings to fight the choice our community has made,’’ she said. “They’re afraid of what we’ve done and that the word will spread. We really wish they would get out of our town. This is clearly a campaign to intimidate the citizens of Concord.’’

Resident Jean Hill first proposed the ban at Town Meeting in 2010. While residents supported it, it was shot down by the state attorney general’s office, which found that it was not written as a valid bylaw. Hill revised and resubmitted it in 2011, but it was defeated by seven votes. The ban came up for another vote in April 2012 and passed 403 to 364. The attorney general’s office signed off on the wording in September 2012.

“Bottled water is bad for the environment, our health, and our public water systems,’’ Hill said in a statement. “Concord’s decision to go bottled water free is a great example of how communities can promote our most essential public service: the tap.”

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