Nestle Waters North America's plans to increase its Michigan groundwater withdrawal by more than 2 1/2 times would unravel an accord reached with environmentalists seven years ago that was aimed at protecting the water table and wildlife.
Nestlé announced a $36-million expansion at its Ice Mountain bottling operations in Stanwood, in Mecosta County, on Oct. 31. The addition of two water-bottling lines — the first to begin operation next spring; the next opening by 2018 — is expected to add 20 jobs to the plant, which employs more than 250 people.
But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has not yet approved the company's request to increase its groundwater withdrawals by 167% — from 150 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute — at White Pine Springs well No. 101 in nearby Osceola County. The DEQ has, however, recommended approval under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation sued Nestlé in 2001 over the potential damage to lakes, rivers and streams that its bottled water plant's groundwater withdrawals would cause. After years of court battles, the two sides reached a settlement agreement in 2009, reducing Nestlé's siphoning to 218 gallons per minute from 400, with additional restrictions on spring and summer withdrawals. The litigation cost the nonprofit more than $1 million, which was covered by supporters.
Now, the proposed permit from the DEQ would take the bottled-water plant's groundwater withdrawals back up to the level that prompted the lawsuit.
"I'm not sure if there is a reasonable amount of water that should be allowed to be taken from an aquifer," said Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of the nonprofit Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. "But 400 gallons per minute seems more than a bit too much."
The controversy highlights the sometimes-contentious balance between protecting Michigan's most important, abundant natural resource — its fresh water — and using it as an economic commodity. It's particularly heightened after the months of fierce debate this year over a Wisconsin community, Waukesha, which lies just outside the Great Lakes Basin, being approved to use the basin for its water supply by Great Lakes Compact member states — over howls of protest from local governments throughout the Midwest.
The DEQ requires use of its Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool, an interactive, online evaluation of proposed water withdrawals in the state that looks at impacts to fish and stream flows through comparative data and modeling, prior to any proposed large-quantity water withdrawal.
"When Nestlé ran the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool" last December, "they didn't pass," said Jim Milne, the shorelines unit chief in the DEQ's Water Resources Division.
But as state regulations allow, the company then requested a site-specific review by DEQ staff. That review, which included looks at the geology in the area and Nestlé's own compiled stream-flow information, led the DEQ to determine the increased pumping "is not likely to cause an adverse resource impact," in January, he said, meaning it won't impact populations of fish in the Chippewa Creek watershed, a tributary to the Muskegon River, or decrease stream flows to the point of natural resource impacts.
It's not unprecedented for DEQ staff to override the findings of the agency's Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool. From July 2015 to July of this year, the DEQ authorized 123 withdrawal requests rejected by the computerized modeling after site-specific reviews, Milne said.
The Stanwood plant receives its water supply "from diverse sources that we manage in a sustainable manner," said Christopher Rieck, a spokesman for Nestlé Waters North America.
"The increase would also allow us the ability to balance the use of our water sources to ensure long-term sustainability and support future growth."
The DEQ notified the public of its impending decision on the Nestlé permit via its biweekly environmental calendar, a little-read regulatory notices clearinghouse, and announced that public comment on Nestlé's request would close Nov. 3, sparking outrage from many because of the short notice.
"The MDEQ’s handling of the Nestlé application is as lax as the handling of the Flint water crisis. Nothing has changed," said Jim Olson, an environmental attorney and founder and president of the environmental nonprofit For Love of Water, or FLOW.
"Rights to public notice, public information, hearings and public participation in government decisions over water and quality of life, health — even our economy — have been diminished to the point of absurdity. MDEQ didn’t even post the underlying documents to the application summary online for interested people to review before public comment, and the notice was so hidden and late in the game that no meaningful comments can be made by Nov. 3."
Added Ostahowski : "I think they were trying to slip it through. It's disappointing but not uncommon."
Responding to such criticism, the DEQ has announced it would extend the public comment period 30 days, and will make available the documents it used to recommend approval of the Nestlé application. A public hearing will also be scheduled in the area during the 30-day period, with a date and venue yet to be determined, said Carrie Monosmith, the DEQ's Environmental Health Section Chief in its Office of Drinking Water.
One reason the Nestlé operation in Michigan has been controversial is that Deb Muchmore, a lobbyist and public relations consultant who has served as a Michigan spokeswoman for the company, is the spouse of Dennis Muchmore, who until January was chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder.
The Free Press reported in February that in March 2015, Dennis Muchmore proposed spending $250,000 to buy bottled water for Flint from either Nestlé or Absopure, a competitor.
“How about cutting a deal with Ice Mountain," which is bottled by Nestlé, "or (Absopure Water board member) Bill Young and buying some water for the people for a time?” Muchmore asked in a March 3, 2015, e-mail. He added that “$250,000 buys a lot of water, and we could distribute it through the churches while we continue to make the water even safer."
Neither deal happened, officials said.
Nestlé’s large-scale withdrawal of low-cost Great Lakes water while Flint residents have not had clean tap water to drink has not sat well with many in Michigan.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said Nestlé has increased the amount of water it’s pumping over time and that he feels the company’s permit application shows the latest proposed increase would negatively impact the environment. Nestlé said its plans would only “minimally” affect the levels of nearby creeks, when it should be having no impact on surface waters, he said.
“Nestlé is essentially appropriating what is a common good for their personal corporate utility,” he said.
Given the track record of the DEQ under Snyder's administration, it’s reasonable for people to question whether a decision will be made based on the environment and the public good, or on corporate interests, Irwin said.
"Michigan citizens need to understand that part of the legacy we have is the unusual amount of fresh water we have. It's not a given that it's going to be around forever. With a company like Nestlé, it appears there is no end to what they think they can sell," Ostahowski said.
Written comments on Nestlé's proposed increased water withdrawals can be submitted until Dec. 3 to the DEQ via e-mail at email@example.com or mailed to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, P.O. Box 30241, Lansing, Mich., 48909-7741.