(Host) Vermont Pure Springs, one of the state’s best-known businesses, says growth is in the double digits. The company sells bottled water to businesses and retailers in 30 states. Now, Vermont Pure wants to expand its Randolph operation, but some of the neighbors object.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports.
(Zind) When Dawn and Jonathan Walters moved out of Randolph Village three years ago, they wanted to get away from the truck traffic at the nearby Ethan Allen Furniture plant. They didn’t like the noise and they were concerned about their children’s safety. The Walters built a house on a dirt road just outside the hilltop village of Randolph Center. The view from their front porch takes in a wooded hillside and sloping meadows. There isn’t another building in sight. Since the Walters’ moved, the Ethan Allen Plant has closed. The trucks are gone from their old neighborhood. But trucks rumble past their new home. The tankers are loaded with water:
(Dawn Walters) “What they currently do is they pull down around the corner and then they back the trucks up the road into here. We didn’t buy this land to have a truck warehouse next to us.”
(Zind) The trucks carry water from a spring on land next to the Walters to the Vermont Pure plant three miles away. The spring is the main source of Vermont Pure water. The Walters’ house is set back from the dirt road. The trucks pass by twice; they come in empty and leave with a full load of water from storage tanks at the spring. The trucks were doing this for a number of years before the Walter’s built their house.
But the couple says things have changed. Vermont Pure has switched from using mainly smaller milk trucks to larger and noisier 18-wheelers. They say the trucks sometimes begin hauling water as early as 2:30 in the morning and run until 11:00 at night. Dawn Walters says the bigger trucks keep them awake and keep them from enjoying their new home. They also say the tankers are a safety hazard.
(Walters) “It’s a fundamental and inescapable change in the character of this neighborhood. There is the issue of safety. A number of neighbors around here have complained to us that these 18-wheelers are too big, they don’t move over, they don’t yield the road, they drive too fast.”
(Zind) When they complained to the town, the Walters discovered that Vermont Pure was in violation of a local permit limiting the number of trucks and the hours they operate. The company acknowledges it’s exceeded those limits and has applied for new permit. In the application, Vermont Pure says it wants to triple the number of trucks running on the Walter’s road to 35 trips per day, seven days a week. It also wants to extend the hours the trucks are allowed to operate. Jonathan Walters says if Vermont Pure has its way, property values along his road and the quality of life he sought when he built his house will be destroyed.
(Jonathan Walters) “Thirty-five tractor trailer loads a day on a small road, not very wide, a gravel country road, is obscene.”
(Zind) Walters says thirty-five daily round trips mean a tractor trailer would pass by his house every 12 minutes between 6:00 in the morning and 9:00 at night.
The Walters aren’t the only people who object to the number and size of Vermont Pure’s trucks, and the hours they run. Al Floyd owns Randolph Center’s general store. The tanker trucks drive through a section of the village on their way to the bottling plant. Floyd says many people along the route are upset about the trucks.
(Floyd) “What they object to is being woke up at three o’clock in the morning listening to some cowboy running their jake brake. You can hear them starting at Smith’s -brmmmm brmmmm. ‘Cause they’re up working at three o’clock in the morning, nobody else wants to be up working at three o’clock in the morning.”
(Sound of water rushing in the filler room.)
(Tim Fallon, Vermont Pure) “We do about 600 bottles a minute. It’s very comparable to what Pepsi or Coke would have. As you can see, it rips.”
(Zind) The filler room is a small, noisy enclosure in the Vermont Pure Bottling Plant in Randolph Center. The plant runs six days a week around the clock. Bottles come in on a conveyor. They’re whisked through a machine where they’re filled with water, then scooted out to be capped, labeled and packed. Not all the bottles bear the familiar pink and blue Vermont Pure label. Most of what comes out of here is labeled to be sold as the house brand for various supermarket chains and drug stores.
(Fallon) “These are 15,000 gallon tanks and we’ve got eight of them, so it’s about 120,000 gallons of water. It’s about a day’s production for us. And we continue to feed the tanks all day long from the spring sites.”
(Zind) Tim Fallon is Vermont Pure’s chief executive officer. Fallon says the water business is booming. Production from the Randolph Center plant is increasing 30% a year and the company is projecting earnings of $75 million this year. Fallon says Vermont Pure is planning to quadruple the amount of space it has by building a new bottling and storage facility on land it owns next to the plant. More water means more trucks.
The spring next door to the Walters is Vermont Pure’s main source of water. It’s plentiful and free. To keep up with demand, the company wants to develop four more springs on that property. Fallon says the company needs to be near its source of water to avoid the cost of trucking it long distances. He says the company’s future hinges on being able to truck more water down the Walter’s road and through the village.
(Fallon) “If we can’t draw water from it, if we’re forced to spend the expense to haul water, we might as well move the plant.”
(Zind) Fallon says business is too competitive for him to incur the cost of trucking more water from a source miles away.
Dawn Walters says Fallon is threatening the community when he talks about moving Vermont Pure. She says in order to grow, the company needs to find water from other sources instead of trucking more from the site on her road.
(Walters) “I don’t have any quibble with Vermont Pure developing. My complaint is when they want to make that development on the back of and at the expense of everything that we have worked all our lives to achieve here.”
(Zind) Some Randolph Center residents think Vermont Pure should build a pipeline to carry the water from their spring. Fallon says that’s a long-term possibility but it would take time to build. He says the company needs more water now. Critics feel the company is simply trying to avoid the cost in order to improve its bottom line and position itself to be bought out by a larger firm, like Perrier or Coke.
Some residents are also worried that the amount of water being taken from the springs will dry up there wells. State officials say the water comes from free flowing springs, not pumped wells, so the impact is minimal. The company is required to monitor the level of a nearby stream fed by the runoff from the spring. Tim Fallon says he believe Vermont Pure is doing all it can to be responsive to concerns without losing business.
(Fallon) “We give a tremendous amount from a charitable standpoint all through the state of Vermont, particularly the town of Randolph. We’ve created a great employment environment. I can look in the yard here, when I started in ’94, and there’s a lot of new trucks out there that the guys are driving and I think their standard in life has come up. If you look at where they were at seven dollars; today they’re at eighteen with full medical, 401K, stock purchase plan, thirteen holidays. It’s a pretty good story.”
(Zind) Fallon says Vermont Pure will alter plans to reroute trucks at the plant site to satisfy complaints about traffic hazards there and he’ll reduce the number of tanker trucks Vermont Pure wants to run through the village. He proposes a number that’s still more than double what the current permit calls for. The Walters say that’s unacceptable.
Fallon has also offered to build a berm near the Walters house to block noise from the trucks. Vermont Pure officials say they’ve told truckers not to use their loud engine brakes but the Walters say the truckers have ignored the request. Al Floyd says the people in the village won’t be happy if the company’s growth means they have to put up with more trucks.
(Floyd) “You put 70 trucks past your house a day. Would you be concerned?”
(Zind) Vermont Pure’s expansion plans will have to win approval from state and local officials and undergo Act 250 review.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Randolph Center.