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Maryland state offices going off the bottle

The O'Malley administration has decided to stop buying bottled water for state facilities where tap water is available, saying it's striking a blow for frugality and the environment at the same time.

The state's "Green Purchasing Committee," formed last year to steer the government toward buying more healthful and environmentally friendly goods and services, voted Thursday to phase out the use of bottled water in state offices and other facilities, officials said.

The move was hailed by environmentalists, who said Maryland's was the sixth state government to "kick the bottle," as they put it, joining Connecticut, Vermont, New York, Colorado and Illinois.

"During these tough economic times our government should be spending scarce public dollars on projects that provide vital public services and grow the economy at large, not just the coffers for a handful of private corporations," Kristin Urquiza of Corporate Accountability International, said in a statement announcing Maryland's action.

The Boston-based group has been campaigning for years to wean people from bottled water, arguing that buying the essential liquid in non-reusable plastic containers is wasteful and undermines public support for maintaining municipal drinking-water systems. In doing so, activists have squared off against corporate water purveyors like Nestle, which sells the clear stuff in a variety of familiar labels, including Perrier and Deer Park.

Marylanders consume more than 261 million gallons of bottled water annually, according to Corporate Accountability International, and yet the state's drinking water infrastructure is projected to need nearly $4 billion in upkeep and repairs over the next 20 years.

It's unclear how much the state might save in giving up bottled water. Richard Norling, a Department of Natural Resources representative on the green purchasing panel, said records indicate the state paid $200,000 in fiscal 2010 for Deer Park, a Maryland brand that before its acquisition by Nestle used to be bottled solely from mountain springs in Garrett County.

Representatives for Nestle and for the International Bottled Water Association were unavailable for comment. But the DNR's Norling said industry officials opposed the state's move.

"They did make the point that in places where there's not tap water and they have sodas, that water is actually healthier," said Norling. "It's a valid point," he added, which is why the state isn't banning bottled water outright.

There will be exceptions for buildings or work situations where water fountains or taps aren't available, he said, and in emergencies or where health and safety are a concern. It will also be up to individual agency heads to decide what liquid refreshments are stocked in vending machines on state property.

State workers aren't likely to hit the bricks over the loss of bottled water, one union leader said, but he didn't exactly gush over the move, either.

Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he'd go along with the bottle phaseout "if this is going to allow us to put the money into vital services. But if this is used as some sort of publicity stunt, then I think that's nonsense."

The phase-out also apparently doesn't apply to the state's legislators, even though they set the stage for it by passing the Green Maryland Act last year, which called for the state to buy more recycled paper and other "environmentally preferable" products.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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