COVID-19 prompts changes to Nestlé hearing format

Chaffee County Commissioners agreed to move ahead with the Nestlé Waters North America public hearing scheduled for Oct. 20 and 22 but decided to further limit in-person attendance due to increasing numbers of local COVID-19 cases.

The commissioners and county staff discussed options for the Nestlé hearing during their regular meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13, as well as concerns about creating a “super-spreader” event and the subsequent potential for key county personnel being unavailable to work during the upcoming election.

After considerable discussion, the commissioners arrived at a consensus to:

  • Limit in-person attendance.
  • Encourage public participation online via Zoom.
  • Focus the Oct. 20 meeting on presentations by county staff, Nestlé, consultants, agencies and the opposition group.
  • Hold morning and evening sessions to hear public comments Thursday, Oct. 22.

Chaffee County Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom said, “We’ve clearly seen, over the past several weeks, the significant impact that the increased incidence of COVID-19 has on our county and its operations. Now is certainly not the time to be lax.”

Commissioner Keith Baker emphasized public health. “Everything else is secondary to that. … I think it would be hypocritical to be discouraging large gatherings and then holding one ourselves.”

Commissioners Chairman Greg Felt said, “I feel like we have a low degree of urgency in terms of addressing this right now. We’ve already delayed this for one year. … I kind of feel like we should postpone this.”

“I think postponing is an option,” Commissioner Rusty Granzella responded, “but I think we’re talking another six months to a year.”

Carlstrom noted that safeguards can be implemented to reduce the risks from the virus but expressed concerns about the number of people “in one place at one time.” She also emphasized the necessity for everyone attending to “follow all of the public health requirements.”

County Administrator Bob Christiansen suggested the possibility of having a virtual meeting.

“I hate to go to totally virtual,” Granzella said, suggesting further limitations on in-person attendance.

Carlstrom said that, even events that have good plans in place, are subject to emotions running high, leading people to exchange words in close contact with one another “and perhaps having grave disregard of public health altogether. …

“That has definitely been demonstrated in other communities when people are coming together on a hot topic.”

When asked about his perspective, Nestlé Natural Resource Manager Larry Lawrence acknowledged the significance of the pandemic and said, “We’re going to take the commissioners’ lead on this. The community is much more important.

“At this point, based on the idea that the permit would continue to be in place during the review period, … we would be more than willing to move the permit hearing to whatever date you felt was most appropriate.”

Tom Bomer, cofounder of Nestlé opposition group Unbottle and Protect Chaffee County Water LLC, agreed with concerns about preventing a COVID-19 outbreak. “However, we are, in fact, very desirous of getting this issue resolved. …

“We would strongly object to you giving Nestlé Waters another 6-month or year extension.”

Bomer said his group would prefer a month-to-month extension instead of another long extension. “That’s been one of the things that Nestlé does … they keep stalling and putting things off, which of course just extends their operations.”

Lawrence responded, “We have not delayed in any way this process and have been very willing and active participants in this process since last October. … We would not appreciate a month-to-month operational basis. … We, of course, are not trying to delay any of this.”

When asked how he feels about a virtual hearing, Bomer said he is concerned about people having a difficult time participating in a virtual setting.

County Attorney Jenny Davis asked if there might be a way to proceed and substantially reduce the number of people attending in person but still accommodate people who can’t participate virtually.

Bomer said his opposition group, which has been granted one hour to speak, “would certainly want to present in person. … We would be there both days, of course. That’s essential to us.”

In response to a question about capacity, Carlstrom said, based on a “distancing calculator,” the maximum capacity at the Chaffee County Fairgrounds would be 28 people in the main building and 38-40 people in the north building.

Commissioners and staff also discussed streaming the meetings live on Facebook to facilitate maximum access.

“I feel like a lot of people need this hearing before they make any comments,” Felt said, “because, just based on some of the comments I’m receiving, I feel like there is some misinformation out there that the hearing will clarify.”

The commissioners directed staff to create a press release for distribution Wednesday, Oct. 14, to convey the information about changes to the format of the public hearing, and Commissioner Felt said he would review the press release before it is sent out.

Anyone can view the Oct. 13 meeting here.

Joe Stone