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Crusader takes on bottled water

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CONCORD, Mass. — Henry David Thoreau was jailed here 164 years ago for refusing to pay taxes while living at Walden Pond. Now the town has Jean Hill to contend with.

Hill, an octogenarian previously best known for her blueberry jam, proposed banning the sale of bottled water here at a town meeting this spring. Voters approved, with the intent of making Concord the first town in the nation to strip Aquafina, Poland Spring and the like from its stores.

In orchestrating an outright ban, Hill, 82, has achieved something that powerful environmental groups have not even tried. The bottled water industry is not pleased; it has threatened to sue if the ban takes effect as planned on Jan. 1. Officials here have hinted that they might not strictly enforce it, but Hill, who described herself as obsessed, said that would only deepen her resolve.

"I’m going to work until I drop on this," she said. "If you believe in something, you have to persist and you have to have a thick skin."

Tom Lauria, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association, an industry group, questioned why Hill would single out bottled water when there are so many other products packaged in plastic. "Some people in the industry kind of respect her because of her age and her vision," he said, "but we believe that vision is distorted. There are far worse products to pick on than water."

Hill’s crusade began a few years ago when her grandson, then 10, told her about the so-called Pacific garbage patch, a vortex of plastic and other debris floating between California and Hawaii, thought to be twice the size of Texas.

She researched and homed in on bottled water, finding that millions of plastic bottles were disposed of daily and that most were not recycled. While most opponents of bottled water have sought piecemeal change, like getting government agencies to stop buying the stuff, Hill wanted her affluent, erudite town to take a bolder step.

"The bottled water companies are draining our aquifers and selling it back to us," she said, repeating her pitch from the town meeting in April. "We’re trashing our planet, all because of greed."

Hill’s presentation compelled some 300 voters to support the ban. But days later, town officials said the ban appeared unenforceable and, worse, a magnet for lawsuits. They have asked the state attorney general’s office for guidance.

"It’s our responsibility to carry out the wishes of town meeting, but we’re struggling a little with how to do that," said Christopher Whelan, the town manager. "It’s still up in the air what will happen on Jan. 1."

Lauria said the bottled water association would consider suing if the attorney general’s office signs off on the ban. "It’s a completely legal commodity, and to ban it runs afoul of interstate commerce considerations," he said.

As for Hill, Whelan said she belonged to a long tradition of town residents channeling Thoreau and other big-thinking forbears.

"She’s the classic Concordian who conceives of an idea and doesn’t take no for an answer," he said. "She’s a strong-willed citizen who is very committed to the environment, so in a lot of ways she’s typical of this place."


Hill said she developed an activist streak as a teenager during World War II, when she spent a summer working in a New York City parachute factory. She discovered that employees got no paid vacation, and tried to stir a revolt.

"I went to a local union office," she said. "Here I was, only 16, and they said, ‘Get lost, kid."’

After that, she stopped agitating but read a book a night and honed her research skills as a clerk at Life magazine. She got married and raised four children here, returning to activism only about 15 years ago when she fought a plan to build a visitors center in a historic meadow.

Hill’s current battle is a lonely one, despite the overwhelming support of voters who attended the April meeting. She reached out to Corporate Accountability International, an advocacy group in Boston that gave Hill a PowerPoint presentation to help make her case. But most of her work — researching online, passing out pamphlets at church — has been solitary.

She recently organized a screening of "Tapped," a documentary about abuses in the bottled water industry, at the local high school. A representative from Sen. John Kerry’s office came — Hill had threatened not to vote for him otherwise — but the crowd she had hoped for did not.

She has critics, including some who dismiss her as a retiree with too much time on her hands.

"Oh, I know," she huffed, "this little old lady in tennis shoes butting into everyone’s business. It’s annoying and it’s not true. I’m not meddling; I’m trying to accomplish a legitimate goal."

Hill attributes the popularity of bottled water to the widespread belief that everyone needs eight glasses worth a day.

"People thought, ‘Oh God, got to have my water," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "If you did that, you’d spend the whole day in the bathroom!"

She does not drink enough water herself, she allowed; orange juice, milk and Scotch are higher on her list. For those who do sip water all day, she has some characteristically blunt advice.

"Get yourself a nice Thermos," she said. "I’ll give you one if you want."

Hill made a point of finding out how many public water fountains Concord has — 11 — and sharing their whereabouts in a letter to the local newspaper, The Concord Journal. She also approached a local merchant to suggest selling Thermoses instead of bottled water.

"He was not impressed by that at all," she said. "The stores aren’t happy about it."

Her movement suffered a blowback last month, when a water main break forced a boil-water order in the Boston area for several days. The pursuant clamor for bottled water gave some in Concord, which was not affected, second thoughts about a ban.

Hill never flinched.

"People got hysterical," she said. "All they had to do was boil their water for one full minute and that would be fine."

In a crisis — or whenever they wanted — the people of Concord could always get bottled water from elsewhere, Hill said. Nor could the ban stop them from stockpiling water from big-box stores, a loophole that does not vex her for now.

"I’m not prepared to take on Costco at this point," she said. "Maybe when I get a rest, I will."


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