The Niagara bottling proposal is complex and has problems at multiple levels.
The statement has been made that the only reason people oppose this project is because they object to plastic water bottle waste. That’s part of the problem, but it’s larger than that.
At that level, what’s wrong with the Niagara project is that access to drinking water is a basic survival need, which must be met if humans are to exercise their inherent right to life. Water is a public resource, and a municipal resource, and that always comes before its being a potential revenue source.
But let’s start at the objective level, where local involved agencies have acknowledged their accountability.
There is the question of the recharge capacity of the water supply itself. As currently projected, Niagara bottling would consume the remaining 25% of the Kingston City water supply that are currently unused. Historic recharge rates only provide past results, and are a questionable indicator of future performance. Local instances of climate change raise the question whether local recharge rates will decline. If we are locked into a contract with Niagara, will we have enough water for ourselves in 20, 10 or even 5 years ?
Similarly, the proposal’s site environmental footprint raises serious concerns about what the waste stream will consist of and how it will be managed, water needs for plant operations, traffic loads on local highways, and other demand placed on local infrastructure. These need thorough review.
Step up a level though and we start running the risk of segmentation as the SEQR process describes. Namely, who will be accountable for assessing the effects of removing half a billion gallons of water per year from our local environment ? When we use our water locally, we return it to the local watershed, where it stays available to us. Having an excess to cover droughts as well as help other communities experiencing a shortage, is a good thing. The water cycle is a fundamental mechanism in our regional ecosystem; if we remove a quarter of one of its major local constituents, how will that ecosystem change ?
Another regional systemic arena in which this project has problems is the economic one. The phenomenon of private sector actors dressing up like white knights and promising jobs and revenue to local governments is as old as marginal local economies. The leaders of local government and business are excited at the prospect of shoring up their precarious financial situation, and would like to offer tax breaks, an easy regulatory trip, and any other benefits that seem available.
But history in this arena shows that the knights often turn out to be thieves and hucksters, do not deliver jobs or revenue, soil the local landscape, take the local community to court when their unsustainable demands on its resources are not met, and generally fail to lay the golden eggs the locals hoped for. Let’s not get bamboozled in this way.
This in turn points at a further level of problems, namely the effect of extractive industries on the social, political, economic and ecological environments they operate in. Selling resources to powerful outsiders is what impoverished third world countries do. I wish they were not available as an example, but they are in fact a very pertinent analog to what is being proposed here. You don’t trade away your public resources for cash; you build local production that uses them sustainably. That is more difficult, but if you hand your resources away, you’re left with a homeland that is impoverished and soiled – including by plastic water bottles in this case – for the long term. That is not made up for by short-term revenues of dubious solidity.