Supermarket display of plastic Big 8 "spring water" in bottles with their blue and white labels, and price label in yellow saying "So local" and the price $3.79 for plastic bundles of 24 bottles.

This is the first of a two-part series looking at bottled water from Nova Scotia’s underground, how much the province charges for it, and the real value of fresh water in the midst of a climate crisis. This article looks at the withdrawal of large amounts of groundwater in Colchester County by two large corporations, and at municipal efforts to benefit from those operations. This article was first published by the Halifax Examiner on January 2, 2024.

Every year, two corporations withdraw hundreds of millions of litres of groundwater from wells in Colchester County. They bottle the water – said to be “pristine” and “some of the purest water in Canada – and sell it far and wide, even internationally, as “spring water.”

The two corporations are Empire Company that owns Sobeys, which owns Big 8 Beverages, and Primo Water Corporation, which owns Aquaterra that in turn owns Canadian Springs.

It’s impossible to know how much those two corporations make from sales of that water.

And as of this writing, the Halifax Examiner has not yet been able to find out how much water Big 8 and Canadian Springs actually withdraw every year from their wells, which are tucked away on rural roads east of Truro in Colchester County.

Satellite image from Google Maps showing networks of suburban neighbourhood roads in eastern Truro and to the east of Truro, with the Salmon River visible and tracing a course from the upper right of the photo to the lower left corner. While some landmarks such as Tim Hortons and Home Hardware and Foodland locations are marked on Google maps, of note in this screenshot are two yellow circles with stars in them that mark the locations of the Big 8 and Canadian Springs well sites east of Truro.

Google Maps screenshot showing the locations – with yellow circles – of the well sites for Big 8 (owned by Sobeys that is part of the Empire Company) and Canadian Springs (owned by Aquaterra, that is part of the Primo Water Corp) east of Truro, NS.

Canadian Springs hasn’t responded to any of our questions, despite two emails and one phone call that was shunted to “corporate,” where the line went dead.

A Sobeys spokesperson did reply to some emailed questions, but didn’t answer the question of how much water the company withdraws in Colchester County.

We do know, however, how much Sobeys and Primo Water pay the municipality of Colchester for water that comes from the county, and “one of the purest aquifers in Canada.”

Absolutely nothing. Not one penny. Continue reading Nova Scotia is practically giving away ‘some of the purest water in Canada’

Part 1: Each year, Sobeys and Aquaterra pump hundreds of millions of lites of water from wells in Nova Scotia and bottle and sell it in grocery stores for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. For that water, the province charges the two companies a total of $769.

Read more

crumpled 500 ml plastic water bottle with a blue label identifying it as "Big 8" brand, lying amid stones, fallen leaves, grass and a fir branch

This is the second of a two-part series looking at two commercial groundwater wells in Colchester County – one owned by the Sobeys company Big 8 Beverages, and the other by Canadian Springs, owned by Aquaterra. This article examines some of the environmental implications of such commercial water bottling, when the planet is experiencing not just a climate crisis, but also a plastic pollution crisis. This article was originally published by the Halifax Examiner, and the first article in this series is available here.

In June 2013, the year the Sobeys company, Big 8 Beverages, received a grant of nearly half a million dollars from the Nova Scotia government, it installed equipment in its Stellarton facility that allowed the company to produce its own bottles and to “significantly reduce” its costs.

Two years later, Big 8 won Invest Nova Scotia’s “export achievement award.” To honour the occasion, Invest Nova Scotia put together a promotional video for the company, which features narration from Brad Bethell, Big 8 general manager.

The face of a clean-shaven man with short-cropped brown hair and blue eyes in the foreground, with a large plastic bottle of water with a blue tint and cap behind him, and under his face, a blue circle logo with three curved lines inside it, and the words 'Brad Bethell, General Manager" in a blue banner across the bottom of the screenshot, taken from a video.

Screenshot from Invest Nova Scotia video featuring 2015 Export Achievement Award Winner: Big 8 Beverages, owned by Sobeys, showing its general manager, Brad Bethell.

In the video, Bethell said:

Essentially, we can bottle a 500 ml bottle of water inline from a pre-form all the way through to palletizing it without touching it, so it’s very efficient, very effective, and we actually produce over 250,000 single bottles a day.

You really have to understand your market that you’re operating in now, your domestic market, and make sure you’re one of the best. And then once you know the business model, the cost, the logistics, we work with NSBI [Nova Scotia Business Inc.] to make some great contacts to help educate ourselves, on what we need to do to be competitive, and to get into the export trade.

A man wearing a baseball cap and glasses stands in the middle of a U-shaped assemblyline full of plastic bottles full of orange pop with labels identifying it in navy blue lettering as Big 8.

Still showing the Big 8 bottling plant in Stellarton, taken from the Invest Nova Scotia video promoting 2015 Export Achievement Award Winner: Big 8 Beverages.

Invest Nova Scotia also did a Q and A with Julie Nowe, Big 8’s finance and business development manager. Nowe said the “cost reduction” Big8 was able to make by producing its own bottles, and the bottling plant in Stellarton being close to the port of Halifax, positioned Big 8 for exporting “top-quality Canadian bottled spring water or soft drinks.”

“Now we’re exporting to China, Barbados, and Aruba, and we’re looking at further development in Asia and some Middle Eastern countries,” said Nowe.

“We have a niche here because of our excellent water source. We acquire our water from an underground aquifer in Valley, Nova Scotia, which is one of the purest aquifers in Canada,” Nowe noted.

As reported in Part 1 of this series, the two corporations extracting water in Colchester County for bottling are Empire Company that owns Sobeys, which in turn owns Big 8 Beverages, and Primo Water Corporation that owns Aquaterra, which in turn owns Canadian Springs.

According to Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC), Sobeys has a water withdrawal permit that allows it to withdraw 650,000 litres a day, which works out to 2.4 billion litres a year. For this, it pays the provincial government $360.27 annually. Aquaterra can withdraw 961,000 litres a day, or 3.6 billion litres a year, for which it pays $408.58 annually. Continue reading Nova Scotia is practically giving away ‘some of the purest water in Canada’

Part 2. What are the environmental costs of bottling and exporting Nova Scotia's groundwater?

Read more