Journal

New Work: SleepyTownCorporateAmerica

Water. Our most valuable resource and the one we take most for granted. Very rarely are we confronted with the concept of what life would be like without water; the occasional power outage, a weekend camping trip, an excursion to a Third World nation. But in the comfort of our American consumerist society, it’s quite easy to forget how irreplaceable water would be in our lives, from taking showers to watering a garden, from cooking and cleaning to brushing our teeth to caring for our beloved pets. To have contaminated water, or no access to water at all, seems almost unimaginable. But for the residents of one small Pennsylvania community, the risks of this reality are all too real and one they presently face.

Kunkletown, Pennsylvania is the picturesque vision of what you’d call a rural town: it takes you roughly 5 minutes to drive from one end of town to the other, the hoppin’ spot is the local general store, and the church bells chime every Sunday on the hour, every hour. As beautiful as it is flawed, vulnerable as it is tough; where what some would call naivety, the residents would call trust.

Nestlé, silent as the night, crept into this community, approaching one Kunkletown resident, Rick Gower, with a proposal for his property’s usage. In the shadows, corporate officers negotiated to drill on Mr. Gower’s land to access the 30-mile-wide aquifer that supplies the entire town’s water supply and to extract and bottle water for Nestlé’s corporate profit. Having arrived at a mutually beneficial agreement between company and individual, Mr. Gower began strategizing how to alter the zoning ordinance in a manner that would reclassify water extraction. This bureaucratic change would allow Nestlé to extract water from his property, bypassing the fact that extracting on his property was considered a commercial activity not permitted under the township’s zoning laws.

It was the summer of 2015 when Nestlé’s endeavors began to come to light. Donna Borger Deihl, a life-long resident of Kunkletown and an outspoken advocate for her community, first noticed something amiss when she saw surveyor’s stakes well inside her property borders when Nestlé began marking the boundaries of Gower’s property. They did this to her brother Doug as well, who happens to live next door. “They had the stakes actually up here in our yard, and all they told us was that they were reference stakes. Which, I understand how surveying is, they may have been reference stakes, but the point where we were at, with Nestlé and Rick, it kinda comes down to 'stay the hell off our property'...So I took them up [the stakes] and I threw them right on Rick's porch...Here's your goddamn stakes back,” he stated as he showed us where the stakes had been placed along the two properties. They were found many feet inside her actual property lines, encroaching on their land and marking it as Nestlé’s. But this was just a mere sign of things to come as the corporate giant began its slow but steady intrusion into Kunkletown. Very soon after this incident, Mrs. Deihl discovered Nestlé was proposing to drill mere feet from her home - and extract over 200,00 gallons of water a day, with the possibility of up to 500,000 gallons a day.

There are several alarming aspects to this massive corporate enterprise put forth by Nestlé; the first of these being the decisions that essentially allowed one man’s potential personal profits put an entire town’s water supply at risk. After reviewing hundreds of emails, on-the-record statements, and various conversations/tapings of town hall meetings, it becomes quite evident that Kunkletown is exactly the type of place that Nestlé seems to target in its pattern of water extraction locations. The area is somewhat removed from society, isolated and rural, with low population density and had local politicians who might be able to manipulate the regional governance. 

It was a perfect storm of conditions in the worst way and magnitude possible, and a grave danger to all the residents of this small town. And with such a corporate Goliath (Nestlé has over sixty different water brands, including the ever-popular Poland Spring, Deer Park, Perrier, and Aqua Panna) pursuing a future that many residents felt is to their disadvantage, many are preparing and learning how to fight and protect themselves from such an industry giant.

While several hydrogeologists have confirmed that Nestlé’s water extraction would most likely not drain the entire aquifer (which is replenished naturally through water recharge), it would potentially drain the region’s water discharge (which supplies rivers, lakes, and most importantly, citizens’ wells). Should that occur, residents throughout the town would need to drill new wells, which is at least a several thousands of dollars expense that many Kunkletown townsfolk can’t afford, and the risk runs high as the area has a great deal of shallow wells. A community without access to water is one that faces higher cost of living while watching its property values diminish, and has to live with intolerably increased tension in its residents’ daily lives.

As someone who grew up in Kunkletown, and knows firsthand how naturally beautiful and peaceful this area is, it breaks my heart to see neighbors turn to enemies in this bitter battle to protect both their livelihoods and land. Vandalism and aggression have run rampant, from spray-painting anti-Nestlé protestors’ cars in the dead of night to mysterious explosions occurring near the drill site. The nature of Kunkletown’s community and structure has been fundamentally altered in the wake of Nestlé’s presence. Decisions made by a select few local leaders, some of whom potentially stood to gain financially from the arrangement, are now effecting the entire population. 

With a legal battle looming, pitting a town of limited resources against an international corporate monolith, these deals and makeshift politics highlight the dangers we face in our own backyards. Soon, even our status as Americans might not save us from a fate faced by the less fortunate the world over; it hasn’t saved my community. For those not as familiar with the practices of the bottled water industry, there is an undeniable lack of transparency when it comes to their water extraction methods, and communities throughout the United States, from Maine to California, are slowly falling victim to an extraordinary level of corporate greed.