A Michigan township has temporarily blocked Nestlé’s attempt to pump millions of litres of groundwater for bottled water — the latest in a trend of municipalities engaged in legal battles with the world’s largest food and beverage company.
Nestlé is seeking to build a pipeline booster pumping station near Evart, Mich., in an effort to supply more water to its plant in Standwood, more than 50 kilometres away.
The added capacity provided by the proposed booster pump would make it possible for Nestlé to extract an estimated 1,500 litres of groundwater per minute, representing more than 4.2 million bottles of water in a 24-hour period. That’s equal to 794 million litres of water annually.
“Just because we’re putting in the application for 400 [gallons] doesn’t mean it’s going to run at 400 gallons per minute most of the time,” Nelson Switzer, Nestlé Waters’ chief sustainability officer told the Stamford Advocate.
The company is currently limited to pumping 945 litres per minute, up significantly from its pre-2015 cap of 565 litres per minute.
“The fact is we want to make sure that we don’t spike Evart beyond our permitted capacity,” Switzer explained. “So having that capacity permitted is important.”
Bottled water became the most consumed bottled beverage in North America in 2017, which has driven massive sales for Nestlé, including US$7.4 billion in bottled water last year alone.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has taken more than a year to approve the application to build the new infrastructure.
Opposition from the public and Indigenous groups has slowed the approval process, including a zoning dispute led by Osceola Township.
Judge Susan Sniegowski heard arguments Nov. 15 from Nestlé’s attorneys, who say its permit to build the pump in Osceola County meets zoning bylaws, but was ultimately rejected by the township.
Osceola Township says Nestlé must formally request to have the property it’s hoping to build on rezoned, but attorneys for Nestlé believe it’s a stall tactic.
“Nestlé has an extractive operation meeting all the standards for issuance of a special land use permit,” Bill Horn, Nestlé’s attorney, told WWTV.
The Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation protested outside the Reed City courthouse Nov. 15, with signs reading, “Nestlé destroys our planet one bottle at a time.”
“What we’re here to do is support the township in their efforts to govern themselves,” Jeff Ostahowski, the group’s vice-president told M Live.
Opponents have concerns about the impact additional water extraction would have on the environment. Local media reported headwaters near another Nestlé-owned pump have been diminished to the point that fish species can no longer be supported.
Additionally, Michigan residents have questioned why Nestlé has virtually free access to the state’s water supply, while residents like those in Flint, who have faced lead-poisoned water, spend hundreds for tap water they cannot drink.
Guelph, Ont., has been in a legal battle with Nestlé for years over the amount of groundwater the company is legally allowed to pull from the local aquifer.
The city and local activist groups have claimed the 3.6 million litres of water Nestlé Canada is allowed to pump per day from its well in Aberfoyle, Ont., under its provincial licence is unsustainable.
Activists had claimed the company had increased pumping in recent years, including during a recent summer drought. The company pays just $3.71 per million litres pumped under provincial regulations.
The Ontario government formally imposed a two-year moratorium on new or expanded bottled water companies as of Jan. 1, 2017 after thousands of people expressed support for the ban.
The B.C. government instituted new bottling administration fees in 2015 after public criticism over Nestlé’s ability to draw water from the province’s waterways at no cost.
The company can now take approximately 230 million litres of fresh water every year from an aquifer in the Fraser Valley. They pay $2.25 for every million litres.
Oregon’s governor attempted to block a water transfer deal last month that would jeopardize Nestlé’s plan to build a $50-million bottling plant in Cascade Locks, east of Portland.
The deal would allow Nestlé to receive 850 litres of water per minute from a local spring.
Nestlé Waters North America is attempting to build a Poland Springs plant in northeast Maine to pump up to 650 million litres of water a year from a public water district well.
An estimated 100 tanker trucks would be needed to transport the water to bottling plants nearly 270 kilometres away.
Environmental groups have raised concern over that proposal as well.
Despite widespread expansion projects, Nestlé maintains it is a steward of water conservation.
“Nestlé promotes sustainable water practices throughout its operations,” the company outlined in its 2016 annual report. “For Nestlé Waters, this starts at the source with engagement activities with local communities to ensure the sustainability of our shared public water resources.”
— With files from the Associated Press.
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