What Up North Progressive Learned at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Really Big Nestlé Water Meeting

Saturday , 15, April 2017 1 Comment

The Ice Mountain logo of Nestlé North America depicts a snow-covered mountain top; an image meant to make the consumer think the water came from some pristine glacial melt. The reality of Ice Mountain water is it comes out of the ground in Northern Michigan along the Muskegon River. We’re blessed with an abundance of water here. We have numerous lakes, rivers, cold-water trout streams as well as creeks, swamps, and wetlands. Enjoying the water draws many people from ‘downstate’ to visit this area.

Sixteen years ago, Nestlé came to Michigan. They settled in Osceola and Mecosta Counties to take advantage of the resources here and profit from them. For two hundred dollars per year, they have the state’s permission to pump 200,000 gallons of water every day out of the ground and sell it in plastic bottles anywhere in the world they want. Water taken away from the state never to return.

Nestlé now wants permission to raise the amount of water they take out of the ground every day. They want to double it, which means they will now have permission to pump four hundred gallons per minute out of the ground, rather than the one hundred and fifty they extract now. Will the extra water mean more jobs? No, not really. Will the extra draw of water have any impact on the water table and quality of the ground water in the area? That is a question Nestlé nor the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality seems interested in, or concerned about to answer.

There has been plenty of public outcry. From locals who live in the area, to people around the state struggling for access to water, such as Detroit and Flint. Residents of those cities pay more in a month to use water for their households than Nestlé pays all year to take water out of the ground and sell it for a profit. It’s no surprise people are outraged and protesting against the MDEQ potentially approving Nestlé’s application for more water.

On Wednesday, April 12, 2017, the MDEQ hosted a hearing at Ferris State University for public comment. They said the hearing would begin at four o’clock in the afternoon, and run until nine in the evening. Those of us who arrived at four were in for a number of surprises.

First, MDEQ failed to disclose before the hearing that Nestlé refused invitations to attend.

Second, at four o’clock the only thing happening in the ballroom were people socializing while a six minute video played on repeat over and over and over and over providing a brief summary of Nestlé’s application and “research.” What stood out the most was a pie chart that showed when compared to other “industrial” use, Nestlé Waters made up a tiny fraction of the water consumption in Michigan.

Third, the actual public hearing wouldn’t start until seven in the evening, nearly three hours away.

Fourth, the MDEQ had no intention of making any sort of actual presentation to the masses. The information they offered was the looping video and piles of colored paper with what they claimed was their research and the application process.

So while the video looped every six minutes for three hours, The Up North Progressive chatted with a retired groundwater specialist from Kalamazoo. Connie Leatherman spent time talking to the many MDEQ employees standing behind tables with the same colorful photocopies of information and asking questions that weren’t addressed in their handouts. How deep was this well at White Pine Springs? What medium was it in? Why is there no data on private wells on the pie chart of water consumption in the region?

These were the answers given to Connie: The well is 190 feet deep, and the medium is all sand. As for the data on private wells, the MDEQ doesn’t regulate wells on private property, so it wasn’t included in their pie chart. Connie said that with the well extracting from sand, the draw isn’t as wide as it would be with clay or bedrock, and that was a good thing. What was bad about the MDEQ’s information however was that private property wells were nowhere in their research. Also, all of the other industries using water in the region (they included hydroelectricity plants and agriculture-two industries that do use large amounts of water) don’t permanently remove water out of the state. The only industry which does that is Nestlé.

At seven o’clock the big meeting finally started. We listened to about eight minutes of rules on how people were allowed speak and when they would be called. Over a hundred people had signed up to speak, and the MDEQ made it clear that the volume of speakers would have no impact on their decision, only the speakers who provided real scientific evidence would be considered. Also, there was a three minute time limit to speak.

And then it began. First up was Peggy Case of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. She gave a fact-filled speech about the real impact doubling the water taken from the White Pine Springs would have on the water table, cold water trout streams and wetlands in the area. When she finished she received a standing ovation.

Some local news sources made it seem as if there was an equal balance of speakers for and against Nestlé being approved for the application. That couldn’t be more false. Out of the over one hundred who spoke at the hearing, only four were in favor, and two of them were employed by Nestlé. The other two represented the Mecosta County Economic Development Corporation and Big Rapids Chamber of Commerce. Heather Briggs was one employee who defiantly insisted Nestlé was a good employer and contributed to the community. A former County Commissioner from Osceola County countered that when Nestlé came to Michigan in 2001 it was because Wisconsin forced them to leave. The Osceola Board of Commissioners asked the company then if they would establish an escrow account and put five percent of their gross profits into the county. Nestlé said no to both requests. Despite the County Commissioners denying Nestlé then, zoning was changed and the company moved into Evart.

Bus loads of people from Flint and Detroit were there. One Detroit resident suggested that
Nestlé be forced to pay for water what Detroit Residents have to pay. A Flint resident spoke about the outrage that the residents of the city are paying for water they can’t even drink. The room erupted with DO YOUR JOB at one point. One speaker from Wisconsin said that Nestlé is greedy and wicked. A minister who had been at Standing Rock said that water was not a resource, it was the source. Elizabeth Zipp pointed out during her three minutes that Nestlé not only pays two hundred dollars per year to pump 200,000 gallons of water every day, but they also receive $13 million from the state in tax credits. Bill Cobbs, a candidate for Governor of Michigan suggested that an injunction be filed against the MDEQ if they approve the application. Other citizen organizations represented their views, such as Michigan Environmental Council, FLOW, The Detroit People’s Water Board Coalition, and the Water Protectors.

The MDEQ admitted the data showing no adverse affects would result from the increase in pumping water was based on a computer model provided by Nestlé and not based on any real time studies of the area. Demands for a two year moratorium on granting the application so the USGS could provide a real-time study of the area were repeated throughout the hearing.

By nine o’clock, the MDEQ members called for a break. The people who came from Detroit and Flint went back to their bus to head home, and those remaining talked about what had taken place. People were unhappy with the MDEQ for the three hours of dead time before the hearing began. They felt that Nestlé provided too much of the data proving their application wouldn’t harm the environment even when the computer model showed the water table and surrounding wetlands would be affected. The head waters of the Chippewa Creek are already running dry from Nestlé’s activity. Everyone agreed real-time studies needed to be done by an independent organization such as the United States Geological Service.

The last thing Up North Progressive heard while passing by Bryce Feighner, director of drinking water at the MDEQ, everything he heard tonight he had already heard before. Not the words of someone seriously considering public comment and the overwhelming disapproval of Nestlé North America.

Public comment can still be left with the Michigan DEQ until April 21, 2017.

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