For years, a fight has been brewing over public water worldwide. From Michigan to drought-stricken California, to Canada, to Germany, and beyond, the Nestlé corporation is a key player in a worldwide effort to privatize our finite water resources, and then sell it back to us in plastic bottles—in Michigan’s case, in and outside the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW and our allies, including Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, continue to call on the state of Michigan to withdraw the permit for Nestlé’s groundwater extraction in Mecosta County. On June 17, 2020, FLOW and MCWC co-hosted a webinar that provided frontline, scientific, and legal insights into citizen-led efforts to challenge the Swiss-based corporate giant in its quest to expand its extraction of groundwater in mid-Michigan. Every year, Nestlé in its operations near Evart pumps hundreds of millions of gallons of public groundwater virtually for free, bottles it, and sells it under the Ice Mountain brand back to the public at a huge markup—while threatening streams that provide aquatic habitat and flow to Lake Michigan.
FLOW submitted formal comments to the state on January 30, 2020, citing deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by Nestlé. FLOW demonstrated that the plan’s failure to adequately address hydrological effects leads to the perverse outcome that the monitoring plan will mask, rather than reveal, the actual adverse impacts of the pumping allowed by the permit at issue. “Michigan waters are held by the state as sovereign,” FLOW founder and president Jim Olson said, “meaning, held for all of Michigan’s citizens, so by its very nature, a monitoring plan must be fully transparent, independent, reliable, and accurate to collect data and understand existing hydrologic, geologic, and ecological conditions.”
On November 20, 2020, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) dismissed a case challenging the state permit issued to Nestlé in 2018 for increased water withdrawals from springs in Osceola County. The announcement also dismissed more than 80,000 comments EGLE received opposing the permit. FLOW and MCWC believe it is the duty of the state to make sure that multinational corporations like Nestlé don’t privatize public water and don’t harm water resources in their water bottling operations.
“If anything is important to the people of Michigan, I don’t care what party you’re in, it’s water,” said Olson, who has led the legal fight against Nestlé since the early 2000s.
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.
The public is invited to join FLOW and the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation as we co-host a one-hour webinar on Wednesday, June 17, at 1 p.m., providing frontline, scientific, and legal insights into citizen-led efforts to challenge Nestlé, the Swiss-based corporate giant, in its quest to expand its groundwater grab in Michigan.
Every year, Nestlé in its operations near Evart pumps hundreds of millions of gallons of public groundwater virtually for free, bottles it, and sells it under the Ice Mountain brand back to the public at a huge markup — while threatening streams that provide aquatic habitat and flow to Lake Michigan.
Presenters will include:
Jim Olson, President & Legal Advisor, FLOW
Peggy Case, President, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation
Take action today! The public also is invited to take action today to help stop this unlawful capture of the public’s water. Click this link to learn more about the issue and personalize our template email to Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy Director Liesl Clark, as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to urge them to uphold the law and their roles as trustees of our public water by rejecting the Nestlé permit once and for all.
By Peggy Case, President, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation
Rarely does a ruling by a state Administrative Law Judge overturn a permit issued by a state agency. In the contested case hearing on the Nestlé permit to withdraw more than 500,000 gallons of water per day from a White Pine Springs well near Evart, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB) had hoped the administrative law judge would reverse the former Snyder administration’s unwarranted permission for Nestlé’s permit.
But on April 24, the administrative law judge in the case before the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued a proposal for decision that would uphold the permit, and recommended that Liesl Clark, Director of EGLE, render a final decision in Nestlé’s favor. Fortunately, the decision is only a proposal, and our attorneys have advised us that MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band have a right to file exceptions.So we are urging Director Clark and the Whitmer Administration to reject the footloose interpretation of Michigan’s water laws for Nestlé to sell another 210 million gallons of bottled water per year from the headwaters of our lakes and streams.
The proposal from the judge is full of errors and interpretations and relies on a model based on assumptions, not actual calculations of the effects, that tipped the cup toward Nestlé. We intend to demonstrate these errors through the filing of exceptions as provided by law. We trust Director Clark and the administration will reject the permit, and follow the legal duty resting with EGLE to apply our water law standards strictly, the way they were intended.
This proceeding and case started with the Snyder Administration’s Department of Environmental Quality when it granted the permit in April 2018, despite compelling legal arguments and massive public opposition. Today, we have new leadership and a new Director at the helm of EGLE.
The Governor and Attorney General campaigned on a promise to change the way we do business in Michigan when it comes to protecting water resources and promoting water justice. Unfortunately, to date, the administration through EGLE and the Attorney General’s office has continued to defend the Nestlé permit and filed a brief asking to throw out our contested case and grant the permit. This is difficult to comprehend when we consider that in the spring of 2017, 600 people opposed to the permit drove or took buses from all over the state to attend the hearing. Citizens submitted more than 80,000 comments opposing that permit in the first place.
We know this Administration can do better in support of the voters, the water, and the damaged ecosystem in Osceola Township. It can do better than ignore the injustice in Flint where many households are still not assured of clean, affordable tap water. It can do better than give away another 210 million gallons of water a year to Nestlé while thousands of homes in Detroit still do not have running water.
In 2005, in relation to a lawsuit MCWC filed in Mecosta County in 2000, a Michigan appeals court upheld the science and law that 400 gallons per minute from a well in a Michigan glacial headwater spring, wetlands, or creek system causes substantial harm. The court did so because date before, during, and after pumping on the withdrawals and pumping rates showed a direct correlation of pumping at 200 to 400 gallons per minute and drops in flows and levels and serious impacts. But when the 2018 permit was issued, the data was lacking, and what data existed was not used to calculate effects but fed into a computer model targeted to find little harm.
By filing the exceptions and legal brief with the Director, we are urging her to conduct an independent review of the facts and loose interpretations, and overturn a permit that was based on twisting those facts and the law to favor private gain at the expense of our public water.
MCWC and the GTB ask the Whitmer administration, the Attorney General and Director Clark to return state government to respecting the paramount duty of our state leaders to protect our state’s water and live up to the public trust responsibilities granted by our State Constitution and water laws.
We expect the Attorney General and the Director of EGLE to take this opportunity, presented to them by our persistent work, to actually look at the record and the laws in question and do what is right for the people and our precious waters. We expect them to withdraw this permit for Nestlé’s water grab and direct their energies to repairing the injustices of lack of affordable water access in communities such as Detroit and Flint.
Note from FLOW: To support MCWC’s vital work to protect our public trust waters from privatization and commercialization, click here.
A Michigan state administrative law judge, after almost a year and a half delay, recently decided he had no jurisdiction to rule on a citizen challenge of a proposed potash mine that would suck enormous amounts of groundwater out of an aquifer near the town of Hersey—near Reed City and the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The mine, if approved, would drain groundwater supporting sensitive wetlands and result in disposal of contaminated water into aquifers.
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) filed the challenge after the state in June 2018 granted permits for eight solution mining wells and three non-hazardous brine disposal wells for the potash mining operation, despite environmental opposition to the project. The proposed potash mining operation in an Osceola County wetland complex would use 725 million gallons of Michigan groundwater per year, according to the state. Potash is used as fertilizer.
Michigan Potash Co. LLC proposes to extract potash salt through the process of solution mining, by pumping water or brine into targeted zones to dissolve the underground potash. The resulting dissolved, potash-rich brine is returned to the surface where it is evaporated to recover potash and food grade salt, state officials say.
The process creates potash deficient brine and water that is recycled in a closed loop system and reused. The three proposed nonhazardous disposal wells will handle the residual brine that is no longer usable for solution mining.
Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter, just days before a scheduled hearing on MCWC’s challenge and more than a year after the state issued the permits, determined he had no jurisdiction to rule on the challenge. The action baffled opponents of the mine.
“The upshot of all this,” said MCWC chairperson Peggy Case, “is that for the past year and a half, no one in Lansing has been looking into the serious issues involving Michigan Potash’s plan and site.” But MCWC vows to forge ahead, taking its challenge to the Environmental Permit Appeals Board within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). A hearing on jurisdiction is expected on March 20.
Case notes that Pulter’s non-decision decision dealt only with permits to drill the 11 wells. Additional permits will be required for the location of a refinery, high-pressure brine pipelines and handling facilities, shipping routes, and storage. The company has not performed any tests to establish that it can safely withdraw 5 to 10 times more fresh water than Nestlé is taking for its bottled water six miles away.
“People ask us why we’re continuing our fight,” Case said. “In short, we believe that we have no choice. High-risk, intensive industrial activity at such a uniquely vulnerable site is not something we’re willing to accept without a fight. Michigan already has far too many areas that have become ‘water sacrifice zones’.”
“As Michiganders, we view fresh clean ground and surface waters as our birthright.”
Ted Curran and his wife Marcia walked into my life and FLOW’s life during the fight by the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) for the soul of Michigan’s public water and the Great Lakes in its lawsuit against bottled water-giant Nestlé.
I served as legal counsel in MCWC’s battle, and it was during a citizens’ meeting in the lower level of Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City that Ted and Marcia showed up to support us. When they introduced themselves after the meeting, and offered their assistance, I realized they were there because they cared not just about a single issue, but cared deeply about the common good.
Ted became a stalwart supporter of FLOW during our early years from 2009-2011 when we formed as a coalition to work to close the dangerous loopholes in the Great Lakes Compact diversion ban for bottled water and water as a product. Little did I know when I first met Ted that when he chose to work on something, he wouldn’t stop until he saw it succeed.
Thankfully, Ted, along with our other MCWC board members, meant just that. Then he continued as a founding member of FLOW’s Board of Directors. Our mission—“Keep it plain and simple,” Ted urged: Save and sustain the waters of the Great Lakes Basin from diversion, impairment, and private control by establishing a framework and body of principles for generational stewardship.
This framework and body of principles are rooted in what is known as the common law public trust doctrine— principles that impose a duty on government, as trustee, to protect the integrity of common public waters like the Great Lakes, for citizens, as beneficiaries, from one generation to the next. Ted understood the importance of these principles, but he also understood the majestic beauty and importance of 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.
He rolled up his sleeves, attended most every meeting, and began to demand that we continually define and hone our mission and goals. Shortly after we formed FLOW, Ted invited me to his home on the Lake Michigan shore near Frankfort to talk over coffee. He stressed clarity in our work, and contacts with others, especially in raising funds. He urged me to reach out and follow up, and to not shy away from asking for donations, something I’ve never been very good at. He cared for FLOW, but he knew caring and missions also demanded professionalism for an organization to succeed and serve the common good.
Ted was a mentor, sharp observer, astute organizer, and quiet leader—he encouraged, asked questions to force you to think clearly, and guided strategy and direction. Ted drew on his wealth of diplomatic experience around the world—often in hot-spots like the Middle East–during his career as a one of the highest-ranking members in the United States Foreign Service, and on his deep passion for peaceful solutions in serving the common good throughout his life.
Ted’s idea of peace was not quietism when he was with us. As FLOW co-founding member Bob Otwell, former Executive Director of TART Trails, recalled, “Ted was a warm, gracious man, and at board meetings, his comments always helped move us forward with more wisdom.” Former FLOW Board Chair Mike Dettmer said, “Ted’s work, dedication, and involvement cannot be overstated. He was, and always will be a guiding light, someone who kept us moving in the right direction, and when we strayed, he gently, firmly called us on it.”
As FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said, “Ted was there in the early days, for meetings, events, outreach, and fundraising. He would always take me aside, reminding me about details, people to contact, and always to keep raising funds. His words and actions were, and remain, an encouragement and reminder that good things come about with faith and action.”
These qualities of clarity, grace, wisdom, and a keen sense of the right thing to do, and then to do it, are something that he and Marcia seemed to have shared throughout their entire life of more than 60 years together.
Ted, you lived for community and the common good of humanity. We miss you. Thank you for your solid, kind service and friendship to all of us here in Northern Michigan. We’ll always think of you when we look at the majestic Great Lakes that you cherished. You have been, and will continue to be, a beacon of light.
A memorial service is planned at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Beulah, Michigan, for 2 p.m., Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. For more on Ted’s full life, read his beautiful obituary here.
I don’t mean to dampen the joy of spring in Michigan, but amidst headlines over Line 5 and unconscionable groundwater contamination from PFAS, we need to embolden our governor, our state officials, and every citizen who cares about water, justice, and the rule of law to join another battle.
We need to hoist the mast of Michiganders’ most precious resource (if you seek a water wonderland, look about you), and rally to prevent the private encroachment on our public water, health, and our communities. Private landowners have a right to reasonable use of water for the benefit of their land. But reasonable use does not mean robbing large volumes of water from the headwaters of our streams, lakes, and wetlands—water taken for free and sold elsewhere for private gain.
As I write this, Ross Hammersley, Rebecca Millican, and Bill Rastetter, lawyers for Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB), are filing legal arguments before a Michigan administrative law judge who will rule on the legality of a permit that would allow a bottled water company—Nestlé—to sever another 210 million gallons from our watersheds without paying a penny for the privilege to sell our public water.
MCWC, the GTB, and their lawyers need your help. This is a call to action to prevent the loss of the state’s sovereign water that is supposed to be managed by government for the benefit of citizens. If the state does not honor its paramount responsibility this way, our water and watersheds will be subordinated to private interests. It is up to citizens to join together to make sure our leaders act in the public interest.
“When the tribal signatories to the 1836 Treaty of Washington ceded title to approximately 14 million acres so that the United States could grant statehood to Michigan in 1837, the Tribes (including the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians) retained inland usufructuary rights to fish, hunt, and gather plants that are property rights protected by the United States Constitution,” explains William Rastetter, tribal attorney for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
“These property rights in the fauna and flora resources dependent upon the Muskegon River tributaries and related wetlands are likely to be impacted by Nestlé’s increased water withdrawal. Because the 1836 Treaty also imposes a duty upon the State of Michigan to preserve habitat upon which treaty-reserved resources are dependent, Governor Whitmer’s administration should be reexamining the 2017 permit issued to Nestlé instead of defending the diminishment of Michigan’s water resources.”
A year ago, in 2018, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) under the control of the then–Governor Snyder administration issued another permit to Nestlé, the bottled-water giant, to extract 400 gallons per minute (gpm) or 210 million gallons a year of groundwater that forms the headwaters of two cold, blue-ribbon trout streams in northern Michigan. MCWC, the nonprofit organization that won the 9-year court battle against Nestlé in 2009, and the Grand Traverse Band, whose tribal treaty fishing and hunting rights are protected by the constitution, filed petitions for contested cases to overturn the permit.
“Our members live along the affected creeks and have standing,” writes Peggy Case, president of the MCWC board of directors. “Our members statewide are also involved as we connect the dots between the privatization of the water of the commons by Nestlé in Mecosta and Osceola counties—for profit only—with the injustice of water shut-offs in Detroit and water poisoning in Flint, all related to attempts to privatize municipal water systems.”
“The hearing on the permit begins May 20 and we are in major fundraising mode to pay the attorneys for the work to prepare for this hearing. It is, of course, our hope that the new Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (DEGLE) will simply determine that the permit was not issued within the requirements of statute and they will withdraw it. It is our contention that none of the three permits for this well were properly issued by the DEQ in accordance to law.”
These cases will soon come to trial, and the results will affect all of us. Recently, the administrative law judge accelerated the trial dates by ordering the parties to file written expert testimony, exhibits, and file legal arguments over the legality of the permit. The hearing will conclude in June.
At stake in this case is nothing less than the future of who controls Michigan’s sovereign, public water. Why? Because much like the way the former Snyder administration manipulated a now-dubious Line 5 tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, the Snyder regime granted Nestlé the permit for 210 million gallons a year—by twisting and ignoring the water laws of Michigan that were specifically designed to address the known harms and risks to Michigan’s cold-water streams and wetlands from bottled water operations. If the permit is left to stand, the world will know that Michigan plays fast and loose with its water laws—and the rule of law—and it asks nothing for the taking and sale of its water. If this permit is not overturned, Michigan may as well post an advertisement in Fortune magazine: “Come and get Michigan’s pure water! It’s free.”
The Price of Water to Citizens and Profit to Private Water Marketers is a Failure of Justice
That’s right; an applicant pays an annual $200 administrative fee and one-time payment of $5,000 to defray DEQ’s expenses incurred when reviewing a bottled-water proposal. The state also charges only a nominal fee for a company in Detroit to tap into its public water supply for a few pennies, bottle it, and sell it at great markup. Not a penny is paid to the people of Michigan for the privilege to sever and sell the state’s sovereign water. The taste of a multinational water bottler’s excessive profiteering doesn’t sit well when people in Flint reel from the lack of access to water safe from the risk of lead poisoning, or tens of thousands of people in Detroit continue to suffer the indignity and harm to families and health from water shutoffs because they cannot afford the high price of water to meet their basic needs. The taste of water injustice in Michigan is bitter indeed.
This Isn’t the First 210 Million Gallon a Year Permit
Before the DEQ issued the permit to Nestlé in 2018, MCWC had already established in the earlier lawsuit against Nestlé in Big Rapids that removing 400 gallons a minute of groundwater near the headwaters of a Michigan stream, wetland, and lake complex causes substantial and unlawful harm. For every gallon Nestlé pumped and piped to the Stanwood bottling plant, the headwaters lost nearly a gallon. It doesn’t take long to understand that, if you remove nearly 400 gallons per minute (gpm) or 576,000 gallons a day from the headwaters of a creek that flows at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 gpm, the flows drop by 20 to 35 percent. When flows drop, water levels drop. When water levels drop, the stream narrows, habitat changes, and the entire ecosystem and riparian and public uses, such as fishing and boating, are impaired. As a rule of thumb, in summer months, these effects can start showing up when the flows in creeks are diminished by even 10 percent.
The lessons learned from the MCWC lawsuit and appellate court decisions are important for the basic questions that will be decided by an administrative law judge and, ultimately, new DEGLEdirector Liesl Clark.But there’s one difference: after the first MCWC trial in Big Rapids, Michigan amended the Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) and the Great Lakes Preservation Act (GLPA), which added a water withdrawal law in 2008. Both of these laws contain specific provisions with more stringent standards for bottled water, largely because of what everyone learned in the earlier trial and appellate decisions:
Existing and actual real-time data of flows and levels before and during pumping, and the calculation of the effects from the reduction of flows and levels from pumping groundwater near headwater streams is critical. Without calculations based on existing data of what happens to a stream when pumping occurs at different rates, the effects and impacts cannot be reasonably or accurately predicted and determined;
Computer modeling with input from selected monitoring data of groundwater and stream flows and levels is not reliable without strong correlation to the calculations and effects based on actual existing data;
Pumping groundwater at rates over 125 gpm from headwater areas during the drier summer months significantly reduces stream flows and the levels of streams, wetlands, and lakes, and results in substantial or unreasonable harm;
Pumping at 200 gpm to 400 gpm most anytime during the year will result in similar effects, impairment, and harm.
The Snyder Administration Skipped the Special Bottled Water Permit Required by the SWDA and GLPA
Because of lessons learned through scientific and judicial scrutiny, the SWDA added Section 17 to address pumping for bottled water. A few key provisions require:
If a water withdrawal totals more than 200,000 gallons a day (gpd), the applicant must comply with all of the standards for bottled water in Section 17 and Section 32723 of the GLPA;
The use of existing hydrologic, hydrogeological, and environmental data or conditions to make a “reasonable determination” of harm or violations of all applicable standards in the law;
Compliance with all of the standards in Section 32723, including the requirement of existing data and conditions, determining individual and cumulative impacts, and assuring no violation of riparian and public trust law and rights in a lake or stream; and
No adverse resource impacts, individual and cumulative impacts from previous or nearby withdrawals; and
Compliance with other laws, such as “no impairment” under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act or the “non-diminishment” standard under applicable treaties.
So, why are the MCWC and GTB contested cases before the administrative tribunal?Because we are a country and democracy founded upon the rule of law, and the former administration and Nestlé manipulated and loosely interpreted these laws in favor of Nestlé’s permit for 400 gpm or 576,000 gallons a day.
Here’s what happened:
Nestlé had obtained a permit to install a water well for 150 gpm or 216,000 gpd under a different law in 2001, but never placed it in production. After the effective date of the 2008 amendments, in 2009, the company applied for approval of the 2001 well for bottled water under the SWDA. But rather than require the company to submit a full application under Section 17 of the SWDA and Section 32723 of the GLPA, DEQ simply approved the water source. Nestlé argued that the well was pre–existing, but it was not, because it had never been put in production.
Then in 2015, Nestlé was allowed to register another 100 gpm, bringing the total to 250 gpm or 360,000 gpd, but under a different section of the law. Once again, DEQ did not require a full application and determination for bottled water production wells totaling more than 200,000 gpd under Sections 17 and 32723.
In 2016, Nestlé applied for another 150 gpm, totaling 400 gpm, or 400,000 gpd. And, again, the DEQ allowed the company to register and obtain a permit under a different provision, but did not require an application for bottled water under Sections 17 and 32723.
Three times Nestlé and DEQ missed or avoided the more stringent bottled water requirements under Section 17 of the SWDA and Section 32723 of the GLPA. Three strikes and you’re out, right? Wrong. In late fall 2016, Garret Ellison, investigative journalist for the MLive Media Group, discovered a DEQ notice that Nestlé would receive a permit for bottled water under the SWDA. The application and supporting information had never been posted. When it was discovered that Nestlé had never filed any application or obtained any permit under Sections 17 and 32723! Public outcry forced the DEQ to advise Nestlé that it had to submit an application under these sections for bottled water production. Nestlé finally, for the first time since the 2008 amendments to the SWDA and GLPA, submitted an application under Sections 17 and 32723 for its bottled water well for 150 to 400 gpm.However, despite thousands of public comments, the public hearing, and scientific and legal reports showing the DEQ and Nestlé had not complied with these laws, the DEQ manipulated and parsed the application into small pieces to avoid the standards and approve the permit.
MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band are heroes for contesting the Nestlé permit. They are calling the Snyder regime’s DEQ on the carpet for turning its back on Michigan’s water laws at a time when Michigan and the Great Lakes are being eyed with envy for its lakes, streams, and groundwater. State officials didn’t follow the law; in fact, they deliberately shaved and relaxed the legal standards in favor of Nestlé so that officials could approve the permit they were going to issue in the first place.
We Have a New Governor, New Director at DEQ (now DEGLE), and New Attorney General
Thank you, MCWC and Grand Traverse Band for representing all of the citizens of Michigan and taking government to task for violating our water and Great Lakes laws and the public trust. You deserve our wholehearted support. We have new leaders. Let all of us demand and make sure our new leaders and new DEGLE nullify the Nestlé permit and require full review under the rule of law, not the political marketplace. For more information and to get involved, visit the MCWC’s website www.saveMIwater.org.
Also consider contacting your elected leaders and ask them to take a stand against Nestlé: Governor Gretchen Whitmer, 517-373-3400; attorney general Dana Nessel, 517-335-7622.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
Jim Olson, President and Legal Advisor at FLOW, is a national expert on water and environmental law. Olson represented Michigan Citizens for Conservation court victory that protects Michigan streams, lakes, wetlands, fish, and riparian and public uses from removal of tributary groundwater for bottled water operations.
Here’s how the former Michigan DEQ manipulated and parsed the deal.
It considered the 2009 and 2015 approvals preexisting, even though they were not applied for or permitted under Sections 17 and 32723. That meant the DEQ didn’t review the 150 gpm and 100 gpm (total of 250 gpm) or determine it was in compliance with the adverse impacts, impairment, and other standards of the bottled water Sections 17 and 32723.
It considered and determined to issue the 2018 permit (totaling 400 gpm at that point) as an application for 150 gpm, and confined its impact analysis to the 150 gpm. It also did not consider the cumulative impacts of the previous 250 gpm along with the request for the final 150 gpm (400 gpm or 576,000 gpm total).
Then it issued the 2018 permit for 400 gpm in two parts. First, it allowed the 250 gpm based on previous approvals, even though they were not lawfully permitted under Sections 17 and 32723; second, it approved the additional 150 gpm or 400 gpm total with a requirement that Nestlé would submit monitoring and other information to comply with the existing hydrogeological and environmental conditions after the fact—even though the determination is required to be based on existing data and conditions.
Finally, despite the clear finding in the MCWC v. Nestlé earlier lawsuit that computer models alone were not reliable, DEQ allowed Nestlé to submit logs of flows, levels, and other measurements it used to fix the boundaries and input in the computer model, but did not require real–time calculations of flows and levels based on complete existing data and conditions to determine the effects and impacts required by Sections 17 and 32723.
Michigan officials have been busy this spring — busy handing out permits to take or destroy Michigan’s water and natural resources in violation of clear constitutional and legal mandates: A mandatory duty to protect the public’s paramount interest in our air, water, and natural resources; a duty to prevent impairment of our water, wetlands, natural resources; a public trust duty to protect our water from loss, diminishment or harm; and a duty to protect the paramount concern for public health.
This is nothing new from our federal government these days, with President Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt not only gifting permits, but outright attacking Clean Air Act rules that protect our health and seek to control greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, and repealing well-designed rules that protect the waters of the United States from pollution and loss. But are Michigan’s officials–its governor, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, its attorney general—doing something similar?
Our officials in Michigan may not be as brash and openly hostile towards health, water, air, and the environment as our federal officials, but their record of indifference is just as bad if not worse, and the recent permit to Nestlé to divert 400 gallons a minute or 576,000 gallons a day from the headwaters of two pristine creeks is “People’s Exhibit One.” This is why it was imperative that Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians filed contested-case petitions against the DEQ’s approval of the most recent Nestlé permit. Their petitions are spot on. Our leaders have gone from indifference to deliberate damage. Unlike federal leaders, Michigan officials don’t come right out and admit they’re anti-water or environment. They do their damage by bending and twisting the law to justify a permit, and telling the public through well-crafted media releases that they have studied the matter more extensively than ever and followed the rule of law. If citizens and organizations like MCWC and the Grand Traverse Band (or Save Mackinac Alliance, who recently filed a petition against more band-aid supports of a failed Line 5 design in the Straits) didn’t take on our officials, we’d never know what really happened, and everyone would blithely slide into summer as if everything was pure as ever. Well, it’s not.
In the last few months, Michigan officials have managed to do all of the following:
Issue a permit to Nestlé to divert 400 gallons a minute from the headwaters of Twin and Chippewa Creeks by interpreting or relaxing the law to help Nestlé get the permit;
Issue another permit to Enbridge for 22 more anchors to support a failing pipeline design in the Straits of Mackinac, now totaling 150 anchors and suspending a pipeline built to lay in the lakebed 2 to 4 feet in the water column, so the line is more vulnerable to powerful currents and ship anchors than ever;
Approve a permit to convert a small state fish hatchery into a large commercial fish farm that diverts and discharges untreated water from the fabled AuSable River;
Issue a permit for 11 groundwater wells to remove 1,350 gallons a minute or about 2 million gallons of water a day, and inject it more than a mile down in the earth to mine potash, and leave it there;
Issue a permit for a 700-foot deep, 83-acre open pit gold mine in wetlands along the Menominee River near Iron Mountain;
Sign or support an agreement with Enbridge to build a new heavy tar sands tunnel 5 years from now to replace Line 5 while ignoring the legal limitation that the Great Lakes are off limits for crude oil pipelines under the lakebed just like oil and gas development, and ignoring the fact that there are obvious alternatives like adjusting in a relatively short term the capacity in the overall crude oil system that runs into Michigan, Canada, and elsewhere.
Does the DEQ or State ever deny a permit anymore? Do they ever take legal action to protect rather than defend these permits? Almost never. It’s always up to citizens and organizations like MCWC, the tribes, and citizens. It shouldn’t be this way, but with the deliberate anti-water, environment and health track record of the State, it’s reality. MCWC’s case to contest the Nestlé 400 gallons per minute (“gpm”) permit is a good example.
Last week, Governor Snyder tried to brush off a television reporter’s question about the Nestlé permit, offhandedly saying he thought the state “followed the law,” and that any “other objections like hundreds of millions of dollars to Nestle without paying a dime for the water were policy matters.” When the DEQ issued the permit, Director Heidi Grether also stated that the DEQ “followed the law,” and that the department’s review was the “most extensive in history.” That’s how it works these days, permits are issued, our state leaders hide behind a façade called the “rule of law,” “comprehensive review,” or “the most extensive review in history.” Ironically, citizens and organizations have placed the law before the Governor, Attorney General Schuette, and Director Grether on Line 5 and Nestle so these permit applications were under the “rule of law,” and these officials have done everything they can do to obstruct the rule of law. Governor Snyder skirted the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and other laws with his private deal with Enbridge to rebuild Line 5. Director Grether refused clear legal standards in approving the Nestle permit. And Attorney General Schuette’s office has been behind these maneuvers at every turn.
So, is this true, or are our leaders beguiling us into thinking they’re doing their job? MCWC’s petition for contested case appears to answer the question. Here’s what MCWC’s petition shows:
The DEQ’s permit on its face postponed the very factual determination required by the Safe Drinking Act and the Water Withdrawal Act before a permit can be approved: Does the existing hydrological data, including actual calculated effects on flows and levels before and after pumping required before a permit can be issued, show adverse impacts or impairment to public or private common law principles? The DEQ issued the permit without the existing data and conditions, relying on Nestle’s self-serving computer model, and postponed the required evaluation and finding to an after-the fact- determination.
Both the Safe Drinking Water Act and Water Withdrawal Act have special sections for bottled water withdrawals that require the applicant to submit and the DEQ to evaluate the existing hydrologic, hydrogeological (soils and water), and environmental conditions. Unfortunately, all Nestlé submitted was a computer model that calibrated its own parameters to reach the conclusion that the pumping would cause no adverse impacts, and several years of intermittent measurements of flows and levels without reference to actual drops in flows or levels of the creeks and wetlands before and during pumping. The required measurements and data required to evaluate existing conditions were established by penetrating and extensive analysis of flows and levels and the effects during pumping on creeks, wetlands, and nearby lakes in the MCWC v Nestlé case in Mecosta County over a DEQ permit to pump 400 gpm. The appellate courts found unreasonable harm when the actual existing data was used to calculate the effects and adverse impacts from pumping. When it did so, the courts determined that 400 gpm from headwaters of the creek and two lakes was unlawful, that it would cause substantial harm. Nestlé and DEQ know this, yet the agency issued the permit in this case without requiring the information on existing conditions required by the law.
The DEQ compounded the error by limiting its after-the fact evaluation to the additional 150 gallons per minute, not the whole 400 gpm. In effect, the DEQ implicitly authorized the first 250 gpm, rubber-stamping Nestle’s 2009 Safe Drinking Water approval for the first 150 gpm, and Nestle’s 2015 registration and Safe Drinking Water approval for an additional 100 gpm. Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act requires a specific permit and determinations for any withdrawal for bottled water that exceeds 200,000 gallons per day. While Nestlé had received a well permit to pump 150 gpm or 216,000 gallons a day in 2001, our officials turned their back on Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act when Nestlé asked for final approval in 2009. When the additional 100 gpm was registered in 2015, bringing the total 250 gpm or 276,000 gallons a day, our officials turned their back again. The DEQ’s recent 2018 permit for 400 gallons a minute allowed Nestlé to avoid obtaining the permits for the 2009 and 2015 expansions required by Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
So there you have it: strike three, you’re out. Our state officials didn’t follow the law, and they didn’t study the legally required existing data and information– extensively studying the wrong data is meaningless. So, the answer is, our officials beguile their constituents and citizens into thinking they are “following the law” and “extensively evaluating” the information to fulfill their duty to protect the water, natural resources, public trust and health, when in fact they deliberately shaved and relaxed the legal standards in favor of Nestlé so the officials could approve the permit they were going to issue in the first place.
The die is cast. The permit is reviewed, the permit is issued, the news release sugar coats it, and the water, environment, and people’s quality of life or health are damaged or put at serious risk. In a way, this seems worse than the federal government’s blatant attack on water, environment, climate, or health. Why? Because it’s done behind closed doors with calculated manipulation of the law to achieve a deliberate result: Issue the permit even if it is likely to cause harm. At least President Trump and EPA head Pruitt acknowledge what our leaders are too afraid to admit: “We are anti-environment, anti-water, anti-health, and pro-corporation and exploitation no matter what the cost, and we intend to bend, dismantle, and repeal these laws if necessary to get our way.” Oh, really, that’s not happening here in Michigan, is it? Our leaders deliberately follow their own law, then issue the permit.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
Thank you MCWC, Grand Traverse Band, and all of those people and organizations in Michigan who take our leaders to task for violating their constitutional and public trust duties to protect the air, water, quality of life for all of us. They deserve our whole-hearted support. This is real citizenship and democracy in action. This is why contested cases and lawsuits are necessary and good for Michigan.
These legal duties on our leaders are mandated in the order stated: Michigan Constitution, Art. 4, Sec. 52; Michigan Environmental Protection Act and Supreme Court decisions, notably Ray v Mason Co Drain Comm’r, 393 Mich 294; 224 NW2d 883 (1975) and State Hwy Comm’n v Vanderkloot, 392 Mich 159; 220 NW2d 416 (1974); the common law public trust doctrine; and Michigan Constitution, Art. 4, Sec. 51.