In a baffling decision announced November 20, the director of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) dismissed a contested case brought by citizens challenging the state permit issued to Nestlé Waters North America in 2018 for increased water withdrawals from springs north of Evart, in Osceola County’s Osceola Township.
The announcement also, in effect, dismissed the more than 80,000 comments EGLE received opposing the permit (only 75 comments were in favor), the testimony of hundreds of citizens opposing the permit at a public hearing in 2017, and the thousands of hours of effort put into the permit challenge by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and their allies.
The EGLE decision, which outraged MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band, was perplexing because it came at the end of a permit process conducted by the agency and its predecessor, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). EGLE itself legitimized the two-year public hearing and comment and administrative decision process on the permit, only to say at the end of the process that it was inconsistent with, and not required by, the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Instead, said EGLE Director Liesl Clark, MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band should have gone directly to court and pursued legal action.
FLOW supported the citizen parties in the administrative contested case proceeding on the permit, stressing that EGLE had erred in granting Nestlé the permit. The appeal hinged largely on EGLE’s overly expansive interpretation of the law that would lead to significant impacts to Michigan’s cold headwater creeks and wetlands. That statute says an applicant can receive a permit only if it provides real-world impacts analysis of effects, not just a model, for large-volume withdrawals from headwater creeks and wetlands for export as bottled water. Nestlé relied on a model, and EGLE acquiesced. FLOW also submitted formal comments to the State of Michigan finding deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by Nestlé.
Beginning the permit challenge in the courts, rather than through an administratively contested case, would turn the process into even more of a David vs. Goliath conflict. MCWC did just that in a 2003 court case at great cost and sacrifice and ultimately won, reducing Nestlé’s permitted pumping by more than half. Costs to a grassroots environment group for legal action, however, are prohibitive, a reality to which EGLE was unfortunately indifferent. Nonetheless, the opposition continues to discuss the way forward.