Residents opposed to a new Niagara water bottling facility in Bloomfield are holding a public meeting Thursday. They say the company and the town chose to keep the public out of the loop until it was too late. And they say public records back that up.
Niagara is building a manufacturing facility that would take water from the public waterways, bottle it, and ship it wherever that their water is sold.
It’s the kind of economic development project that towns and cities across the state say will help grow their tax base. It's also the kind of project that has caused environmental concerns: the company recently ended a plan to move to New York after dealing with public opposition there.
But in Bloomfield, residents also have concerns with process.
Keith Ainsworth is an attorney representing some residents who are opposed to the project. He believes town officials deliberately tried to keep the project quiet until it was too late for residents to oppose it.
"It was not a secret to the town officials," Ainsworth said. "They all knew. And in fact, they made very careful steps, or took very careful steps, to avoid letting anyone know that Niagara was interested outside of the town employees and the town executives."
The town’s attorney and a Niagara spokesman didn't want to speak on tape. But the attorney said the town's process complied with the law, that it was consistent with the town’s practice, and that the matter is “finished.”
Niagara's spokesman said the company was protecting its identify for competitive reasons, and that it followed the town’s customs.
In a statement, the company said:
There will always be a small minority that is opposed to bottled water and who chose to ignore the facts. Despite this, we are confident that the people of Bloomfield will come to know us for who we are and to appreciate the asset that we know we will become.
But Ainsworth has his doubts.
“Once they’ve got all their permits in line, nobody can stop them," he said. "It doesn’t matter what the public thinks at that point. The public can protest, they can scream, but Niagara can thumb their nose at them and, in fact, that’s exactly what they did."
Ainsworth pointed to various emails between Niagara, town officials, and the MetroHartford Alliance on the project. In one from last March, an alliance official told the town manager and others that Niagara had just ended unsuccessful talks to open a plant in New York state. Those talks, and the public opposition, left the company "a bit gun-shy regarding permitting.”
Ainsworth said other documents show that the town was active for the better part of a year in making the project happen, and in keeping it quiet. First, the company never named itself in its wetlands and zoning applications.
Second, Ainsworth pointed to email in which a Niagara representative asked for the company to be taken off a town council subcommittee agenda, because the company’s name might be mentioned.
David Mann sits on the town’s Wetlands Commission. He said town officials didn't give the commission the fullest picture of the project. He said he only learned after the fact that the company was making bottles on site. All he was told, at first, was that it was a manufacturing, storage, and distribution facility.
"That’s all we heard," Mann said. "So it was quite surprising to find out later that it was a bottling plant that had tremendous amount of volume and activity."
Town Attorney Marc Needelman said the town stands by its actions and that it followed the law when it approved various applications and a tax abatement plan. In an email, Needelman also said that there was no intent at the town to hide Niagara’s role.
But Ainsworth, the attorney, said residents should expect more from public officials. I asked him if there’s any remedy.
“For screwing the public? No," Ainsworth said. "For being skunk weasels and having a closed process? No. The only punishment you get is you have to face the public when you go back for an election.”
Still, Ainsworth said his clients plan to continue their opposition. He says Niagara needs at least one other public approval for its project, and he plans to intervene.