A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

David v. Goliath: The Cooper Lake Saga

by Anne Pyburn Craig

Cooper Lake in Winter 2014. Photo by Rachel Marco-Havens.
It began with an August 12 announcement from the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council. “Niagara Bottling, LLC is currently evaluating communities in the Northeast United States to purchase land and construct a 358,000 square-foot manufacturing facility with one high-speed bottling line (initially). The Northeast expansion project will initially create 41 jobs and carry a total investment in real and personal property that will exceed $53 million. Future phases of this project would add 3 additional bottling lines and create up to 120 jobs at full build-out.”

When it was reported in early September that the plant was being proposed for Tech City in the Town of Ulster and that the company had its eye on Cooper Lake, local activists knew they might not have much time. The Tech City site is already zoned industrial, and the City of Kingston’s Water Department had already signed a “will provide” letter of intent. SUNY Ulster president Donald Katt had already endorsed the project as a potential partner, and Niagara was a potential recipient of STARTUP-NY grant funding. The other side’s ducks were in a row and starting to waddle.

“They were way ahead, lined up, and ready to go,” says Rebecca Martin of Kingstoncitizens.org. “We have had to move fast, and I think we have done a great job. I really enjoy working with the people we’ve been working with.”

Cooper Lake is the largest natural lake in the Catskill Mountains, boasting an impressive surface area of 8.6 square miles. It holds roughly 1.2 billion gallons, providing an average of 3.5 million gallons a day to the city of Kingston, for which it is the main reservoir. It’s primarily fed by Mink Hollow Stream. Locals and tourists cherish it for its beauty, and it sits on a Class A Native American archaeological site.
Niagara Bottling proposes to purchase 1.75 million gallons a day, and Kingston’s Water Department says that far more was used in the heyday of IBM. But as recently as 2012, the reservoir underwent a “drought emergency,” with water levels 13 feet below normal. A drought emergency comes with numerous restrictions on water use.  This was the first such emergency for Kingston since 1980, when the water level in Cooper Lake fell to 15 feet below normal. As a result the city Water Department considered buying water from the Town of Ulster Water District and the Port Ewen Water and Sewer District. The most recent “safe yield” report is based on a 1961 study, and water department chief Judith Hansen said last month that the dam should be raised for the first time since 1927 due to climate change.

In September, Kingstoncitizens.org began working to get the word out, and a coalition arose like a human superstorm, activists pre-sensitized by the threats of fracking, pipeline plans, and climate change, conversant with global water privatization issues and the perils of plastic. Facebook’s SAVE COOPER LAKE group had 938 members at press time. “Riverkeeper has been incredible,” says Martin. “I can’t say enough about Kate Hudson, and about Kevin Smith and the Woodstock Land Conservancy, the Esopus Creek Conservancy. Environmental lawyers are amazing…This has moved lightning fast. The SEQRA timeline was announced in late November, after the decision on the ESDC  grant. They were hoping for 11 million. We fought that and won. And it’s illegal in New York State to give public funds to a project in the middle of a SEQRA review.”

The full-on coalition includes SaveCooperLake.org, Catskill Mountainkeeper, the New York Public Interest Research Group, Food & Water Watch, Slow Food Hudson Valley, the Red Hook Conservation Advisory Council, the town of Red Hook, Woodstock NY Transition, Kingston Transition, Sustainable Saugerties, and the Mid-Hudson Sierra Club, not to mention the Woodstock Love Militia, whose members symbolically handfasted with Cooper Lake at a New Year’s Eve Day “wedding.” Opponents have packed public meetings and (inadvertently) crashed Ulster supervisor James Quigley’s email.

In November, over the objections of opponents and of members of Kingston’s Common Council, the town of Ulster received state approval to function as lead agency during the environmental review process and chose to spurn both the Council and the Town of Woodstock’s requests to participate as “involved agencies.” Woodstock, where Cooper Lake is located, has lawyered up.

Rhymes with Viagra
Founded in the 1960s when bottled water was an office-water-cooler thing, Niagara is the family-owned industry leader in the US, growing at about 32 percent per year. “Last year, Niagara opened plants in Gahanna, Ohio; Aurora, Colorado; and Missouri City, Texas. This year, the company already has opened a facility in Puyallup, Washington, near Tacoma, and plans to open two more by the end of the year, in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and Atlanta,” reported Plastics News in  March 2014.

Local public officials have signed confidentiality agreements with the company about the jobs the company brings, but the company’s reviews on Glassdoor.com are revealing. Niagara’s average base pay for Bottling Production Operators is $14.51, better than running a register at Rite Aid, but 41% below the national average for the job. And despite what reads like fondness for the upper management’s stated ideals—Niagara’s website is a marvel of greenwashing—the company rates a tepid 2.7 stars out of a possible 5 as a place to work. The “ability to work 12-hour shifts, day or night, on a rotating 2-2-3 schedule” is an absolute requirement. “Sucks the life right out of you,” “Long term jobs, but as a slave,” and “Pay is under market standard. Poor benefit package. Very poor work life balance,” are typical remarks.

A call to Niagara requesting comment on the Town of Ulster proposal is, one senses, not overwhelmingly welcome; the first time, the line goes dead, and the second time, a caller is rung through to a voicemail. Late in the day, a callback is received from a Derieth L. Sutton, an exec at the company’s Florida outpost. She offers to read aloud the company’s statement. “The statement hasn’t changed. We made a statement a few months ago and have nothing to add to that,” she says tersely. Here it is, as emailed:

“Niagara Bottling, LLC is currently undertaking expansion due diligence in multiple locations.  The Town of Ulster, NY is one of the many communities under consideration. Until such time as a successful due diligence process is completed and a location of choice is selected, Niagara will have no further media comment. Once the company is ready to make an announcement on its next location of choice, it will do so in partnership with its governmental and community partners. Thank you.”

Sutton raised some eyebrows in Florida when she job-hopped straight from the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission into the arms of Niagara. And the company’s track record down there—cuddly, family-owned, and greenwashed or not—speaks of bullying. When Lake County residents and county commissioners learned that their local EDC had been engaged in heavy petting with the bottling giant, they “went ballistic,” according to a 2008 story by Cynthia Barnett in Florida Trend, and voted down a fat tax incentive package. Niagara had already closed on the land. They mounted a massive campaign, sued the town of Groveland, and built their plant, and in February of 2014 won from a local water commission the right to take twice as much water—nearly a million gallons a day—despite effects described by local residents as “devastating.”

“This Water Belongs To God”
The broad and deep coalition to protect Cooper Lake has made its presence felt at meeting after meeting: of the Kingston Common Council, the Water Board, Ulster’s town board, and everywhere else they can show up. They don’t shout at anyone. Not their style.

As of its January 22 meeting, Ulster’s town board had already extended the deadline for consulting firm Chazen to produce draft scoping documents for Niagara so that the SEQRA review can get under way. Neither supervisor James F. Quigley or Chazen project engineer Peter Romano was in attendance, nor was there any sign of the documents.

Very much present were four local residents, who waited through the brief meeting and then rose to speak, inquiring politely about those documents. Had they been received? asked Rebecca Martin. And did the town intend to extend the deadline?

“We haven’t even received the scoping documents yet,” said deputy supervisor Eric Kitchen, a nonsequitur that Martin let pass. David Bruner, also of Kingston, pointed out that much had changed since the project had first been announced, and urged a generous public comment period, closing with the observation that perhaps the water did not actually “belong” to the town of Ulster at all, but to God, “in whatever form he appears to you.” Jennifer Schwartz Berky of Kingston and Elizabeth Simonson of Lake Hill had a couple more polite questions. Had Chazen contacted the board? Had the board reached out to them? Might it not be a good idea to do so? There was no answer to this last question, and the meeting was adjourned.

“We’ve jammed those rooms full, and the more we’ve been able to get transparency into the process, the more things have started to come together,” says Save Cooper Lake activist Karin Wolf. “We’re making progress and it looks like it’s working. Tomorrow morning we’re going to the IDA meeting to talk about green development for Kingston and revitalizing Tech City in a way that makes sense.”
“As someone who thinks bottled water is a polluting industry and selling municipal water a strange idea, I’m happy that we have now been exposed to this and come to understand it,” says Martin. Per SAVE COOPER LAKE’s Facebook page, Niagara’s plan would “generate 3 billion plastic water bottles per year, 520 truck trips per day and commit 30% of our municipal water supply to a single private entity, thereby putting our future LOCAL needs at risk.” Martin continues, “This is the first water bottling facility trying to come into New York. It sets a precedent for the public. There is another round of state funding still to be announced, and we’re hoping Niagara gets passed over again. We cannot assume that this is won.

“You’ve got accountants, lawyers, economic development people all involved, and yet no one has really analyzed this. There’s no overall connection or integration. Decisions are being made in a vacuum. At the end of the day, you have to use public money very carefully. Who decided Niagara is a good idea? Three people? Come on!”

Project engineer Peter Romano of the Chazen Companies says the scoping documents should be ready sometime in February. “Niagara seems to feel this is a good site and one worth fighting for. They came back and asked us to go ahead and prepare scoping documents. After the town approves those, the public comment can begin. It’s still early in a long process.”

For more information, go to Kingtsoncitizens.org or Save Cooper Lake on Facebook.