The freedom to vacation before wrapping up vital work is just one perk of holding statewide office. Beacon Hill legislators also enjoy an endless flow of taxpayer-funded spring water. (Nearly every room in the State House has a bubbler; there's even a cooler on the Senate floor to offset the magnificent marble busts.) Same goes for other commonwealth employees, who together drain more than a half-million dollars worth of five-gallon jugs each year.
Expressing fiscal and environmental concerns, activists with the Boston-based Corporate Accountability International (CAI) gathered on Beacon Street this past week to coax lawmakers into setting a better example. CAI operatives with the "Getting States Off the Bottle" campaign allege "the marketing of bottled water has eroded public confidence in our tap water"; indeed, confidence levels are especially dismal beneath the Golden Dome, where ancient pipes pollute the supply.
Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs spokesperson Lisa Capone says her administration is exploring alternatives. Citing an executive order that Governor Deval Patrick signed this past October to reduce waste by using EPA-designated Environmentally Preferred Products, Capone says that, when the current million-dollar Massachusetts contract with Atlanta-based DS Waters expires in April, operational services will procure more cost-efficient reverse-osmosis and filtration systems. The state invested $150,000 in such technologies in FY09, but still spent more than three times that on bottled water.
It could be easy to banish bubblers at some state agencies that are not situated on Beacon Hill; activists especially hope that major consumers, including the departments of revenue, correction, and social services, will follow the lead of the state court system, which, in a budget-cutting measure, recently canceled $200,000 in bottled-water contracts.
But the State House itself poses extraordinary infrastructural challenges. The original landmark — built in 1798, where the Senate chamber and governor's office are still located — is secured by walls mixed with horse hair and plaster, making it extremely difficult to install plumbing. As for the rest of the six-story, 600,000-square-foot monstrosity, such a massive overhaul would likely cost millions and take several years.
"The State House water is unhealthy, so they almost have to drink bottled water there," admits CAI organizer Ruby Bolaria, who so far has been unable to schedule a meeting with the Patrick administration. "What they're doing now, though, is just a band-aid. This won't be easy, but the governor needs to reinvest in the public-water system, and issue a specific executive order [to prohibit state expenditures on bottled water] like Governor Paterson did in New York."
One building where more immediate progress could be made is Boston City Hall. Despite Mayor Tom Menino's having taken a "Think Outside the Bottle" pledge at the 2008 Conference of Mayors — promising to embrace more sustainable strategies — City Hall workers still suck the plastic teat. Though the cold concrete bunker is just 40 years young, the consensus is that its tap water is undrinkable. Even if Government Center pipes pumped clear-liquid bliss, fountains throughout the building are in ill-repair.