Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New Haven Starts to Think Outside the Bottle

The Aldermanic Chambers of New Haven’s City Hall came alive last night as dozens of supporters turned out for a hearing before the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee on a proposal to end the purchase of bottled water by the City of New Haven.

The bill, introduced by Alderman Justin Elicker, would prohibit the use of public funds to purchase bottled water — both the drums of water used in municipal buildings and the bottles of water currently being purchased for resale to New Haven schoolchildren. According to Elicker, the water currently purchased for use in public buildings is “purified water” from the municipal water supply of Worcester, Massachusetts, which is then bottled and trucked some 100 miles to New Haven.

Alderman Elicker made a thoughtful and detailed presentation replete with props (a sample water cooler jug, a bag of squashed empty water bottles, and refreshments for the alders in attendance — jars of water he had collected from fountains at city schools), expert witnesses from the Regional Water Authority (with handouts), facts, and even a little humor. Elicker had traveled around New Haven sampling water, and vouched for the cleanliness of the school water fountains and the coolness of the water (except in one instance where the cooling mechanism was faulty and he duly reported the problem). His passionate plea left few with any doubts that this idea was a good one. A point that Justin made, that the RWA representatives also stated, and that would be repeated by supporters throughout the evening, was that tap water is much more highly regulated than bottled water. Tap water must be deemed safe from source to tap, while bottled water has no source protection. 

Many spoke in support of the proposal. They included a regional director from the Think Outside the Bottle campaign; Justin Haaheim, environmental organizer for Act New Haven; Yale undergraduates working on a campus campaign to Think Outside the Bottle, some of whom had conducted a “Tap Water Challenge” taste test before the meeting; Yale Recycling Coordinator C.J. May who had a couple of magic tricks up his sleeve; and Yale faculty who offered both scientific and spiritual/ethical reasons to support such a ban. A group of Glastonbury high school students in matching tie-dyed t-shirts were perhaps the biggest crowd pleasers. Members of a group called PeaceJam, which works to create positive change through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates, they spoke of the “fill station” they had succeeded in getting installed at their school, congratulated the board for “considering” this action, and urged everyone to “Be the change.”

One of the last to testify was community activist Aaron Goode, who promised to supply a reusable water bottle “with your name on it” for any City official who had a problem with the cooler ban. 

No one from the Board of Education, which has concerns over implementation of the plan, was able to attend last night’s meeting. Instead, board members sent a request to delay the vote, conveyed through Rob Smuts, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer and a supporter of the proposal, along with a message that the Board of Aldermen could not tell the Board of Education how to spend its money. This request did nothing to sway the opinion of Aldermen Elicker who had been unhappy with the Board of Ed’s general lack of support. The motion as presented by Elicker passed unanimously, without amendments, and will go before the full Board of Aldermen for a vote at its March 7th meeting.

If voted in to law, the ban on bottled water would yield some savings in the range of $31,000-$32,000 in savings, equivalent to the cost of 3,000 textbooks, according to Elicker. It may not do much to close the $57 million budget shortfall the City currently faces, but it is a cut that should have been made a long time ago. New Haven wants to be known as a Green city. What easier way to continue to Walk the Walk than by taking this simple step? 

[You can read more on the February 16th meeting at the sites of the New Haven Independent, the New Haven Register (where there are also videos), and the Yale Daily News.]

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