Update on Nestlé: Michiganders are Leading the Way to Taking Back Public Water

The Swiss multinational Nestlé has been facing increasing scrutiny in Michigan. Outside of the small town of Evart, a mere 128 miles from Flint, Nestlé is attempting to increase how much spring water it is taking for water bottling. Nestlé submitted an application with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) late last year to increase pumping from 250 to 400 gallons per minute at its White Pine Springs well No. 101 in Osceola County. However, local residents and Michiganders across the state came together in droves at the last public meeting to speak out against Nestlé’s proposal. More than 500 attended the meeting, and nearly everyone opposed the application.

I spoke with Jim Maturen, a local police force retiree and avid trout fisherman, who rejected Nestlé’s presence in his county when it first appeared in Michigan nearly 20 years ago. Jim served on the Osceola County Board of Commissioners at that time and continues to oppose Nestlé’s water grab today.

Evart water tower / The Story of Stuff Project

Jim told me that, originally, Nestlé wanted to establish two well sites in the neighboring state of Wisconsin but the people in New Haven and Newport saw that they were on the receiving end of a raw deal. Nestlé ultimately got the boot thanks to citizen action and a lawsuit. And that’s about the time Nestlé successfully approached city and county officials in Osceola and Mecosta Counties, Michigan.

Jim recounted that the zoning laws weren’t set up in a way that allowed his board to intervene, and they unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with the company. The members tried to get water levels monitored by an independent group, a fund set aside to pay for any future damages, and a small percentage of the proceeds to support Evart. Nestlé refused.

Jim reminded me that Nestlé’s mode of operation is the same no matter where it goes: the corporation targets small, rural communities, promises that no one will see the effects of its water take, and claims to bring jobs. In spite of Nestlé’s promises, the community does see the effects of Nestlé’s water grab, and they don’t like what they are seeing.

Evart’s zoning board recently denied Nestlé the approval it sought for a critical piece of water pipeline infrastructure. This pipeline upgrade would allow more water to move from Nestlé’s wellhead (the source) into production for its local bottled water brand: Ice Mountain.

Nestlé Ice Mountain / The Story of Stuff Project

The company quickly appealed the zoning board’s decision in court but then asked to put the case on hold pending the DEQ’s decision regarding its application to increase pumping to 400 gallons/min. If the DEQ denies Nestlé’s request to pump more water, the pipeline expansion would be unnecessary. This seems to indicate that Nestlé is no longer confident that its increased pumping permit is a sure thing.

In Evart, Jim and other members of the community have taken it upon themselves to monitor the conditions of the environment surrounding Nestlé’s well sites at Twin and Chippewa Creeks. What he’s found spells trouble for the trout and the future of the entire creeks’ ecosystems. Trout require cold water temperatures, and with less spring water to cool the creek from the bottom up, Jim found that the water is nearing temperatures that will be too warm for trout if nothing changes soon. But Jim hasn’t actually found any trout here this season anyway, probably because he could hardly find enough water to submerge his thermometer. Some areas of the creeks have less than four inches flowing.

Nestlé, as far as Jim’s concerned, is killing the creek. And he’s frustrated because the DEQ has been relying on computer modeling and Nestlé’s internal reports of the creek’s condition, when a site visit by any qualified biologist would reveal the lack of water, the warmth of water, and the near-total absence of fish. But, at the very least, public pressure is forcing the state of Michigan to take further action.

Twin Creek, Evart, MI / The Story of Stuff Project
Twin Creek in June 2017 with low water levels, Evart, MI / The Story of Stuff Project

Last week, the Michigan DEQ told Nestlé to reexamine how its proposal to take more water would impact the local wetlands, streams, and natural springs. As a DEQ supervisor put it in his letter, the information provided by Nestlé is just plain insufficient.

While these victories may seem small, our collective citizen muscles are building a movement too powerful to ignore. People have come together, written letters, held town meetings, gone door-to-door, and are taking it upon themselves to protect their most important local resource: water.

This fall we will be releasing our next movie, all about the importance of clean, safe water. We’re going to show the bigger story here: the struggle to protect and provide drinking water for all Michiganders, and really for all people. While Nestlé bottles spring water in Evart, thousands have lost access to tap water in nearby Flint and Detroit, ironically forced to rely on that very same bottled water from corporations like Nestlé, just to survive. It’s time to speak out against the big-business politics that fuel water privatization, and make a bold claim for clean, safe public water for everyone, everywhere. Join us!

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