Are we signing up to throw our Island away, one plastic bottle at a time?

Astronomers go bananas when they discover a planet that has evidence of water, because they then know that life is possible on that orb. With water life is possible: without water, the possibilities are severely limited.

With this in mind, I was both surprised and horrified when I learned of a proposal that involved removing water from our Island aquifer and selling it abroad. Let’s put aside for a moment all the persuasive arguments why bottled water in and of itself is a terrible idea (use of oil, carbon footprint, plastic waste, health concerns, shipping something really heavy across the planet that is available locally, etc etc) and focus on what this might mean to Islanders and the water upon which our lives, our economy, and all living things with which we share this beautiful place depend.

As the proposal has been presented, it falls within all the regulatory requirements, and has thus far been given tacit government approval. Because the rate of removal is less than 50 gallons a minute (though the company’s plan states that three wells of MINIMUM 40 gallons per minute will be drilled on this property), no extraction permit is required, and because it falls under water extraction, there is no mechanism in the Environmental Protection Act for the public to trigger a review. Anybody anywhere on PEI could set up a bottling facility in their basement and sell “Pure Island Water” (the trade name of the said company) to anyone who will buy it. And we’re not talking lemonade stand nickels and dimes here. The project as proposed would mean that Pure Island Water could extract – free of charge – water of retail value in the tens of millions of dollars per year. Their stated markets include China and Japan, where they hope that PEI’s reputation for pristine water will mean that they have a “premium product” (their words) to sell to thirsty (and affluent) foreigners. Having said that, they are being careful to drill down much deeper than most domestic wells to ensure that the 100-year-old water they extract is not contaminated with nitrates. What was that about pristine Island water?

Immediate neighbors of the proposed facility are concerned about the impact on their own wells and local watershed, not to mention a new factory in their currently peaceful rural district. It is yet one more example of the vulnerability of unincorporated rural areas to development that might not be compatible with surrounding land uses, and certainly not compatible with the will of the neighbourhood. (A poll of residents at a community meeting on Monday evening revealed almost complete disapproval of the project from the almost 50 people present.)

But the implications of this proposal are Island-wide. With the drafting of a water act well under way, all Islanders should be deeply concerned about the precedent giving a license to such a facility provides for future entrepreneurs looking to extract our pristine Island waters and turn the finite and sensitive resource into a big chunk of cash. It is the first step in a new direction that commodifies an invaluable public good. The granting of a license must be delayed until the water act is in place, and any new protections contained within it brought into force.

On PEI we rely entirely on groundwater, and unlike many other places, we don’t have a lot of wiggle room should something interfere with our supply. In an age of heightened environmental awareness and acceptance of climate change, many places are banning the use of bottled water and its extraction for that use from groundwater. Why on Earth at this time is PEI getting into this dubious business?

Personally it really bothers me that someone is able to do this with impunity, and that our Island water is so poorly protected. What do you think?